Opinion: A decade later, North Carolina rebounds

 In January 2020

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The last time the calendar turned to a year ending in zero, North Carolina was in a very different place. Pessimistic reports filled our January 2010 edition. Unemployment was 11%, with about 500,000 jobless. More than 60,000 homes had been foreclosed in the previous year. Retiring Martin Marietta Materials CEO Steve Zelnak complained about the “most severe downturn since the 1930s.” Four N.C. pork producers had filed for bankruptcy protection amid “the most severe crisis in our industry’s history,” according to an industry leader.

In 2010, Charlotte seemed to have lost its edge, with fears that Bank of America and Wells Fargo — led by out-of-state executives — would invest elsewhere. The Triangle trembled as IBM, Cisco, GlaxoSmithKline and others showed weakness. State finances were a disaster.

What a difference a decade makes. The state jobless rate is 4%. The state’s population has grown by more than 800,000; the number of jobs has increased by more than 700,000 and gross state product has gained about 25%. Robust building and soaring property values in Asheville, Charlotte, Raleigh and elsewhere reflect bullishness.

Our state is a more confident, diversified place than a decade back. The two giant banks took their licks during the last decade, but each remains concentrated in the Queen City with total employment of about 50,000. At a December conference, BofA CEO Brian Moynihan praised Charlotte for addressing challenges more directly than many peers. The Triangle is reclaiming its stake as a biotech and software hotbed.

More than ever, Charlotte and the Raleigh-Durham area are attractive choices for potential headquarters of many companies seeking to cut costs — and take advantage of the state’s aggressive incentive packages. Western and coastal North Carolina are retirement and tourism hotspots. The High Point-Greensboro-Winston-Salem region remains the state’s most livable metro area with an enviable roster of higher ed institutions, a can’t-miss location and an energized leadership cohort.

To be sure, much of the state includes rural areas that are losing population as middle-class jobs slip away, stalling economic mobility. Income and wealth inequity resulting from a few big companies dominating most industries is hurting smaller cities.

Fortunately, state leadership is partnering to boost the fortunes of slow-growth regions. Among the most hopeful signs is the MyFutureNC effort to ensure that 2 million North Carolinians have post-secondary degrees by 2030. Reaching the goal means doubling the current pace of degree completions, which is pressuring the state’s entire education system. Virtually every major state institution backs the effort, which will determine North Carolina’s long-term economic relevance.

The state’s angry political environment dominates the media, but there’s an upside there, too. North Carolina benefits from leaders with divergent visions: the limited-government, tight-fisted approach reflected by State Sen. Phil Berger and the more progressive, invest-now style of Gov. Roy Cooper. The best outcomes often require compromise. That can help set North Carolina apart from states that swing either deep red or deep blue.

Compared with January 2000, this month’s magazine paints an optimistic view with in-depth stories on the emerging Latino influence and slow, steady progress at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis. If North Carolina remains open to new people and visions, while retaining the best of its past, things will look just fine the next time the calendar turns to a year ending in zero.

Best wishes for a great 2020!

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