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May 2002
Strength in Solidarity
     When Ross Stores  wanted to expand its presence with a warehouse on the East Coast, it looked at nearly a dozen sites. The California-based off-price clothing retailer, with 452 Ross “Dress for Less” stores in 22 states including North and South Carolina, needed a location with good interstate access, high quality labor availability, and access to major transportation centers. 
    The Charlotte Regional Partnership leapt into action, promoting the Charlotte region with its international airport, interstate locations and skilled workforce. Additionally, it touted the region’s geographic attractiveness: equidistant to New York and Miami, two cities with high concentrations of Ross Stores.
     “The Partnership was very aggressive in helping Ross decide [on its new location],” says Mark Farris, director of the York County (S.C.) Economic Development Board. Farris and Partnership leaders, in fact, made two trips to Ross’ national headquarters in Newark, California.
     Once Ross executives saw the benefits that York County offers, including the availability of nearly 1,000 skilled employees that they quickly would need, they shook hands on the deal. Groundbreaking on the new 100-acre site, just over the South Carolina state line, took place in July 2001. The doors of the 1.43 million square-foot warehouse, the largest in South Carolina, are scheduled to open this month (May) or next. Says Farris: “The very proactive involvement that the Partnership brought to this project made the difference for York County.”

The Spirit of Partnership

     The idea for a regional partnership was born in 1990, when area leaders realized that the Charlotte region was growing so quickly that it was much more advantageous to promote the strength of region as a whole, rather than as merely a sum of smaller parts.
     The Charlotte Regional Partnership officially came to life two years later as a nonprofit, private/public organization dedicated to the planned growth and prosperity of the Charlotte region—the first such organization in the state. While the number of counties included in the region has changed over the years, there now are 16 counties in the Charlotte region: 12 in North Carolina and 4 in South Carolina, forming an area roughly the size of the state of Massachusetts, with slightly over 2 million people.
     Led by its president and CEO, Michael Almond, and an 84-member board of directors, the Partnership brings together government and local businesses to market and promote the Charlotte region as a highly competitive, vibrant regional economy with an exceptionally attractive quality of life. To further define and identify the region, the Partnership recently “branded” the region as “Charlotte USA”.
    “In many ways, the Charlotte region is the ideal model for regionalism, worldwide,” Almond says. “It’s defined by a very strong and increasingly urban core — and surrounding it are small villages, medium size towns, industry, and businesses of all different kinds.” He points out that the area has a “rich mix of economic inputs,” with manufacturing, banking and professional service firms flourishing side-by-side. A healthy combination of new economy and old economy industries — textiles and furniture, for instance, as well as fiber optic cable manufacturing — also provides an historically stable economic base.
    The region’s quality of life — nice weather, cultural opportunities, available housing, and more — also is an important strength, Almond says, especially when it comes to attracting new companies to the area.
    “Quality of life used to be regarded as a nice amenity in economic development circles,” Almond explains, emphasizing the past tense. “It was fine if you could get your business done someplace efficiently and at the same time people liked living there. But in a borderless world —the 21st century global economy — where people can do business anywhere, businesses are going to put their operations in places where their employees like to live, where they’re going to be the happiest. Quality of life has gone from becoming a convenient amenity to an absolutely essential economic development asset.”
     What the Charlotte region offers better than any other, Almond adds, is a unique balance of three key assets: business strength, accessibility and quality of life. While there are some places that might favorably compare with the Charlotte region in terms of greater business strength or better accessibility to certain populations, he says, “in terms of overall balance… we think we have a unique promise to offer to the world.”

 Promoting Partnership Across Boundaries

     The advantage of such balance—and the opportunity for success — transcends state lines, Partnership members say, insisting that there’s strength in solidarity.
     “It’s all about collaboration,” says Dr. Tony Zeiss, a Partnership board member and president of Central Piedmont Community College, “not being concerned about who gets the glory, but how we are going to maintain the vitality of our region.” Because a top priority for company relocation or expansion is the availability of qualified labor, which CPCC provides through training courses often funded by the state, CPCC has been involved with the Partnership since the beginning. “We’re always at the table.” 
     “We recognized early on that our destiny is inexorably intertwined with what’s going on in Charlotte,” agrees Farris of York County, the first county outside of Mecklenburg to join the Partnership. “We like to offer ourselves as a South Carolina option to the Charlotte market.”
     Almond admits that bringing together multiple municipalities can be challenging, however, especially at the state line.
     “Some people at the state level in economic development believe that if you bring [new business prospects] to the Charlotte region, they may ‘leak’ over the state line,” he explains, adding that the same can be true, vice versa, of South Carolina economic development leaders.
      The state line is economically irrelevant to the Partnership, Almond contends, because it has no  significance to the regional economy as a whole: whether a dollar is brought to York County from Cabarrus County, it still gets spent—over and over—within the Charlotte region.
    Yet the state line as a political barrier remains “a reality that we have to deal with constantly,” Almond says. 
    “We have to be aware that our coverage area is in two different states, and that those two states take that line very seriously.”  However, Almond emphasized that it is important to realize that there are certain issues and problems of regional scope and significance that cannot be resolved at the county or city level – problems that require regional solutions.
   “What do we do about that?” Almond rhetorically asks. “The Partnership can’t hire school teachers, or pave roads; instead, we have to be a catalyst for regional thinking. We can try to make sure that certain coalitions are put together, so the right people are speaking with each other. We have to continue to preach the gospel [of regionalism] everywhere, to everybody, so that they understand why regionalism is so important.”

 When the Going Gets Tough…

     With the recent economic downturn, Almond says the past year “has been a real challenge, to put it mildly.” Whereas manufacturers in the Charlotte region formerly had to import labor to keep factories running, over the past year they’ve been forced to lay off workers. There’s been belt-tightening and consolidation in the banking industry, and tourism has been hit hard in the wake of September 11th.
      The darkest hour, however, is the best time to shine, Almond says, and that’s especially true in the Charlotte region where local leadership has such a huge impact on its success. The Partnership’s 84-member board of directors—filled with representatives from regional cities and counties, as well as execs from some of the area’s most prominent corporate citizens that contribute more than 50 percent of the Partnership’s budget—decided that the spotlight needed, now more than ever, to shine on the Charlotte region.
      “If we are going to have an economic future of our own making,” Almond explains, “then we must formulate and communicate a message of our own design.” Hence, the new branding strategy, new logo and a redesigned Web site that allows site selection consultants worldwide to do their homework without leaving home. The site includes overviews of the 16 counties in the region, a summary of available incentives, special reports on certain industries, a searchable menu of locations available for filming through the Film Office, and more. There’s even a Site Selection Wizard: by entering information such as the type of building or size of acreage needed, preferred distance to the interstate, and the maximum desired purchase price, interested companies and consultants can instantly narrow their options. Almond calls the site “the single most important economic development tool” the Partnership has, receiving 150,000 hits each month—up from 10,000 just three years ago. Each site visitor, meanwhile, is spending an average of 30 minutes at the site.
     Almond describes the Partnership as a sort of “corporate headquarters” for its 16 counties, providing resources, research, support and funding to help them showcase their individual counties in the best possible light.
    “We don’t presume to duplicate what they do,” Almond says. “They’re doing an excellent job already. The Charlotte Regional Partnership exists to do things of regional scope and regional significance that, if we don’t do them, don’t get done.”
      When fulfilled, however, those Partnership functions translate into real dollars for the region. The Film Commission office of the Partnership, for instance, now helps bring $110 million to $120 million in film industry expenditures—pay for production crews, studios, writers and actors — to the region each year. Applying even a conservative economic multiplier —that is, the number of times a dollar can change hands as business is conducted in the region—exponentially increases the total to nearly $1 billion in  income for the region, Almond says.
     When the Ross Stores warehouse opens, the company’s annual local payroll will be about $28 million, and another $9 million will be generated in local expenditures and property taxes. About 15 percent of the $37 million total annual benefits will stay in York County, Farris says; the rest will make its way throughout the Charlotte region as goods and services providers from the area do business with the warehouse, and as employees drive throughout the region, spending their pay.
     Such a coup likely never would have happened without the Partnership’s strength and support, Farris says. “We do not have—and may never have—the resources necessary to market our community and tout our benefits as part of a larger region. We could not come close to effectively marketing York County without being part of the Partnership.”

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