Greensboro lawyer Mike Fox joined High Point University President Nido Qubein in the Power List interview, a partnership for discussions with some of the state’s most influential leaders. Interview videos are available at www.businessnc.com.
Mike Fox is a triple-play threat in state civic affairs. The partner at the Tuggle Duggins law firm has chaired the N.C. Transportation Board since 2017. In 2021, he became president of the Piedmont Triad/Carolina Core economic development group.
The graduate of Appalachian State University also has a law degree from UNC Chapel Hill. His wife, Angela Bullard Fox, is an elected District Court judge. They have seven teenage and young adult children.
This story includes excerpts from Fox’s interview and was edited for clarity.
Why is North Carolina suddenly so attractive to everybody?
The rest of the world is finding out what we’ve known here in North Carolina for a long time. It’s a great place to locate your business. It’s a great place to raise your family. And it’s a great place to vacation. We’ve finally gotten the word out and we’ve got an incredible business climate as well as a lot of advantages in infrastructure, not just roads, bridges and rail, but also electricity, water, sewer. All of those things make it attractive for a business to come here.
What do DOT board members talk about?
Our board is about policy, so we’re looking at setting the policies for our state, and we’re looking a decade out. If we’re thinking about what’s happening today, then we’ve missed the boat. We look at the projects that will be needed in the next decade. How do we get those built? Equally important is there’s going to be a huge change in how we fund transportation and infrastructure over the next decade because our traditional source is the motor fuels tax, which you pay every time you put gasoline in your vehicle at the pump.
What about high-speed rail?
There’s a lot of federal money going toward rail, and improving the infrastructure. Notably for North Carolina, there are two things that happened — one in North Carolina and one in Virginia — that are key. In North Carolina, the [CSX-owned] S-Line will create a new line from Richmond directly to Raleigh along an old track. The other is money that was appropriated to repair a bridge across the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. That has been a bottleneck for the entire East Coast.
What makes North Carolina attractive for business?
Our tax rate is relatively low. We’ve also built a reputation of doing everything we can to try and make you successful, and that goes from not only providing traditional infrastructure like roads, water, sewer, electricity, natural gas, but also employees and workforce. And I think our workforce is one of our greatest strengths.
What makes North Carolina’s workforce different?
We have a history of manufacturing here. Going back to the textile companies, tobacco companies and furniture companies, we have a culture of manufacturing where it’s viewed as a positive job. We’ve transitioned now to advanced manufacturing. We have an automotive battery plant, we have an automotive plant, we have a number of other high-tech industries.
Are we ready for a future with continued growth?
We have to be thinking ahead for the next decade, not only in basic infrastructure, but also workforce development and education. Our educational system here in North Carolina is one of the most attractive things that people look at from every level, from pre-K up through higher education, including our community colleges. We have a world-class system.
Is the state competitive in offering incentives to recruit industry?
At the local and the state level, we have come to a place where we realize that is the way of the world, you have to participate. But you have to participate in a smart way such that there are some guardrails. When a Toyota comes to invest $3 billion, that has a ripple effect throughout the entire community. So, whatever money they are granted in incentives is paid back many times to our citizens and to our local government in taxes.
Where exactly is the Carolina Core?
It’s roughly the geographic area between the Charlotte and Research Triangle Park metro regions. We’re in the middle. Those two areas have seen extraordinary growth over the last 20 years and there’s been good growth in the Carolina Core, but only recently have we caught up to be that third economic engine of North Carolina.
What makes the Piedmont Triangle Partnership distinctive?
The No. 1 thing that distinguishes PTP is it’s a private nonprofit and it’s funded entirely by its investors, who tend to be business leaders in the Carolina Core area who have stepped up to say, “We need to find a way to promote this region.”
Are the Triad’s college graduates staying to live and work in the Carolina Core?
They’re actually a huge target for us in terms of retention of a workforce. Even the folks from out-of-state who choose to go to school here. They chose to come spend at least four years of their life here, so we need to make sure that they understand that not only is this a great place to get an education, but it’s a great place to start your career or perhaps raise a family.
Post NAFTA, this 11-county region lost 90,000 jobs. Are we recovering from that period?
When we launched the Carolina Core brand in 2017, we set a goal of 50,000 new jobs by 2037. We’re in 2022 and we’re at 40,000 new jobs, 80% of the goal. We’re doing very well.
Companies like Boom Supersonic demand more skilled workers. Do you get resistance from companies that say you’re killing me on pay scales?
Our business leaders have understood that creating a climate, an ecosystem where people want to come here and work, will benefit everybody.
What do you see in the next five years for North Carolina and the Carolina Core?
2022 was a record-setting year, not only for the Carolina Core, but also North Carolina. It had the largest investments and jobs announced in state history in terms of VinFast and Wolfspeed following Toyota in late 2021. Chris Chung, of the Economic Development Partnership says the pipeline is even fuller in 2023 than it was in 2022. The interest is strong. We potentially could have another great year.
What are the short-term challenges?
One is the workforce. I don’t think there’s one magic bullet. It is continuing to have the good investments that we’ve had in the university systems and the community colleges, and also in our primary and secondary education because a lot of these jobs do
not necessarily require a four-year degree or even an associates degree, so we’ve got to be turning out high school graduates with good basic skills.
The second thing is, we’ve got to be able to invest in our infrastructure. Highways and bridges, but water and sewer, too. North Carolina, unlike a lot of other states, does not have a water crisis.
What about affordable housing?
In the Carolina Core, we have a cost advantage as our prices are not as expensive as they are in Raleigh and Charlotte. But we’ve got to continue to build up our inventory. Any time you create 17,000 jobs in one year in an area, you’re going to need more housing.
How is rural North Carolina faring in terms of transportation and access to health care?
North Carolina will not be successful if only part of it is successful. It just can’t be the urban areas. Our DOT board is geographically dispersed. We have 20 members, 14 appointed by the governor from all over the state, and six appointed by the legislature. The key to improving lives in our rural areas is being able to connect them to whatever they need — education, health care, jobs and recreation.
When I first came on the Board of Transportation, a group of business leaders from Rockingham County told me that the most important road for their county is going to be built in Guilford County. And it was I-73. They realized that the connection to the heart of the Triad was going to be critical for their population to be able to get medical care, to be able to get jobs, to be able to travel to the airport, all of those things. That was insightful. ■