Timing is a big deal in economic development, and Roy Cooper picked a great time to become governor. First elected to the General Assembly in 1986 and serving as attorney general since 2000, he pounced in 2016 and unseated Republican incumbent Pat McCrory. Since then, the economy has strengthened, the Trump administration has pushed multinationals to make more products in the U.S. and Republican lawmakers in Congress and Raleigh have delivered sharply lower corporate income tax rates.
The economy’s strength is evident in Business North Carolina’s annual ranking of the largest job expansions. It reflects growth in many regions and a mix of white-collar and manufacturing jobs. While five of the six biggest jobs announcements occurred in or near Charlotte or Raleigh, most of the largest projects by investment are going up in less-populated regions such as Edgecombe and Davidson counties. While the state’s unemployment rate of 4.3% remains higher than in neighboring states, North Carolina’s prospects rank among the brightest in the U.S., various studies show.
Credit for the growth is split between many people and factors. “North Carolina is so good that we are always in the final four,” says John Skvarla, who was the state commerce secretary during McCrory’s tenure. “We are a great state for business, with no unions, low tax rates, a great quality of life and a major focus on education.”
But the governor says his decisions have put the state on the offensive. “I know that a number of companies would not have come or expanded but for the change in economic leadership and repeal of HB2,” Cooper says, referring to the law that prevented transgender people from using bathrooms corresponding to their identified gender. “That has made a difference.”
The understated N.C. governor lacks the flair of Nikki Haley of South Carolina or Haley Barbour of Mississippi, two former state leaders who won acclaim for their recruiting success. Nor does he have the business chops of Florida Gov. Rick Scott or Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.
But Cooper’s workhorse style is paying off for North Carolina, says John Boyd, a Princeton, N.J.-based site-selection consultant. Should Apple or Amazon place much-discussed major office projects in the Triangle, Boyd predicts Cooper’s national profile will soar. “Despite being a Democrat on fiscal issues, Cooper has done a number of things we like, and our clients have a good relationship with his office,” he says. “They are willing to negotiate and deliver incentives.”
While disputes between Cooper and the GOP-dominated N.C. General Assembly have become routine, the two sides have come together on key economic-development issues. Both agreed to fatten the incentives offered for “transformational” projects that involve more than 3,000 jobs and $1 billion in investment. The move was deemed essential for the state to compete against aggressive rivals. Separately, both Cooper and the legislators backed an unprecedented $3 billion bond issue to expand and improve state roads, bypassing the voter referendum usually required for such massive debt.
“I like what I see in the legislature and how they are working together with the governor on economic development,” Boyd says. “I’ll contrast that with Gov. McCrory, who was elected as a pro-business governor, but when it came to the more important issues, he was slow and ineffectual.”
Cooper also hasn’t changed the structure in which the public-private Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina handles industry recruiting, while the N.C. Department of Commerce closes the deals that often include incentives tied to job creation. McCrory pressed for the split in duties during his one term, prompting some criticism by Cooper during the 2016 campaign and expectations he might shift power from the partnership. But other than replacing McCrory’s choice as the partnership’s chairman, John Lassiter of Charlotte, with his own appointee, Charlotte lawyer Frank Emory Jr., Cooper has not pushed for change. “Nobody in their right mind would mess with something that is working that well,” Skvarla says.
The partnership is hitting its stride in its fourth year, says Emory, who attended UNC School of Law with Cooper. “I think it is really working,” he says. “We are in the hunt for many if not most of the major national searches going on. The governor is forward-leaning, and the legislature is stepping up when needed to help us. I’m very positive.”
Cooper had a 49% favorable rating after a year in office, with a 33% negative rating, according to a January poll by Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling. By comparison, McCrory had a 47% negative rating after his first year, with 37% positive.
While in sync on key development issues, Cooper and state lawmakers remain divided over funding for public schools. Republican leaders tout five straight years of teacher pay raises that have pushed average annual salaries above $50,000. But Cooper says more money is needed to boost per-pupil spending and teacher salaries, which now rank 37th nationally, according to the National Education Association. He wants lawmakers to delay further reductions in income taxes, a position rejected by Republican leaders.
“Our workforce has to be upskilled, and we can be ahead of the curve in attracting those better paying jobs for our people,” he says. “That’s where our investment should be right now, and that is what businesses are telling us.”
“Cooper has helped partially eradicate HB2 and the negative atmosphere,” says Watts Carr III, a state industry recruiter in the 1990s. “Cooper, [House Speaker Tim] Moore and [Senate President Pro Tempore Phil] Berger came up with something that at least kept us in the running on certain projects.”
Ronnie Bryant, president of the Charlotte Regional Partnership, adds, “He’s really done a good job of setting a vision for extended success.”
Click the links below to see other economic development stories from the July issue
North Carolina’s top job creating development projects
Harry Brown champions the state’s rural areas
State officials press to raise rural N.C. fortunes