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January 2006
An Economic Developer's Dream
By Susanne Deitzel

     President Ronnie Bryant of the Charlotte Regional Partnership (CRP) isn’t a stranger to the occasional sports metaphor. The morning we spoke, the Dallas Cowboys had just pulled off an incredible last minute victory that kept him up a little later than usual.

      “That’s the lesson alright,” he chuckles roundly, “two touchdowns in the last four minutes. Just shows you gotta play the whole game.”

     And this comparison is quite appropriate. In Bryant’s business, building regional economic development, there are some days that make the gridiron look like a tea party.

 

MVP

     Ronnie Bryant came to Charlotte from the ‘Other Team.’ As president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, Bryant served a parallel function overseeing development for a 10-county region in southwestern Pennsylvania, just as he will lead CRP to serve the 16-county region in the Piedmont. He also regularly competed with Charlotte for corporate relocations, such as the coveted transplant of General Dynamics to Charlotte from Vermont in the fall of 2003, and for the retention of business, by fighting to retain a US Airways hub in 2004.

     When asked what the tipping point was for the munitions manufacturer and the airline, Bryant is plainspoken, “It appears from information we received, that the future and stability of air service simply looked brighter for Charlotte.”

     Bryant says that the strength of Charlotte Douglas International Airport was a key factor in Charlotte’s victory over Pittsburgh. Concurrent with a recent economic impact study conducted on the airport, Bryant comments, “I believe that airports are significant economic engines. Dallas/Ft. Worth and Atlanta would not be what they are today without their airports. The accessibility that Charlotte Douglas provides this region to major domestic and international business centers is, without a doubt, a dominant factor in our competitiveness.”

     At 51 years old, Bryant has spent almost half of his life in the development game. Before his seasoning in Pittsburgh, Bryant served at the St. Louis Regional Commerce & Growth Association. Both positions offered considerable experience and significant challenges, particularly those characteristic of older cities: old assets in a new economy, dated infrastructures, and amenities perhaps a little less shiny than the up and coming cities of the 21st century.

     Bryant appears charged to have the chance to work with a region with the resources of Charlotte USA. “The region has a solid and growing economy, positive population growth, and relatively young demographics; this is really an economic developer’s dream job.”

    Leadership at Charlotte USA was equally enthusiastic about the pairing. Bryant became the unanimous choice of the CRP search committee after an exhaustive nationwide search when prior CRP President Michael Almond stepped down. Comments former Partnership chair, and Bank of America executive, Michael Mayer, “Everyone was impressed with Ronnie’s broad experience and leadership skills.”

     Mayer adds, “Ronnie Bryant is very forthright and very good at consensus building, as well as being a very dynamic, hands-on leader. He visited all 16 counties in the Charlotte USA region early on, and I think that is emblematic of his commitment to the organization.”

 

Name of the Game: Cooperation

     Bryant is charged with promoting the 16-county region of Charlotte USA, the Charlotte Regional Partnership’s brand for an area including Mecklenburg, Alexander, Anson, Cabarrus, Catawba, Chester, Chesterfield, Cleveland, Gaston, Iredell, Lancaster, Lincoln, Rowan, Stanly, Union, and York counties.

     A regional approach to economic development is rather progressive when compared to marketing a single metropolitan area. It has significant benefits such as diversity of industries, a larger population pool, and more powerful workforce figures. It also pairs the quality of life and amenities of a metropolitan area like Charlotte, e.g., the new arena, restaurants, museums, arts and recreation facilities, with the benefits of surrounding counties, such as low   tax rates, larger plots of land, and  suitability for manufacturing, logistics or agriculture.

     Comments Bryant, “Accepting this position was easy. The fact that Charlotte and the surrounding area have already embraced the concept of regionalism impressed the heck out of me. I don’t have to educate about or justify regionalism here, my job is to execute and raise the bar.”

     However, the regional approach also has significant challenges – namely cultivating cooperation and consensus. Bryant likens the 16 counties to siblings. He comments, “Each one is different with its own personality and identity and strength. As a whole, the region is greater than the sum of its parts.”

     But lots of kids means lots of scuffles and competition for attention. But Bryant doesn’t like that particular ‘c’ word.

     “Listen. Clearly, Anson County and Mecklenburg County aren’t competing against one another. You can’t put a manufacturing facility in downtown Charlotte, but the facility’s senior management will probably want to be close to a vibrant city. It is only when you pair the draw of the Center City with the real estate and industrial assets of the surrounding counties that you have the combination necessary to attract businesses.”

     He adds, “Plus, we have in the 16-county region a population of over two million, a workforce of over one million, and a wide variety of options for businesses. With four to five counties trying to attract the same company, the area appears considerably better equipped than an area that can only offer one site option. If we work together, we win.”

 

The Play Book

     In the past several years, CRP has managed with the help of Charlotte corporate leaders, city, county and state partners, and other organizations such as the Charlotte Chamber, Charlotte Center City Partnership (CCCP) and Advantage Carolinas, to pull off some fairly substantial coups. General Dynamics’ move from Vermont, the addition of Johnson & Wales, the retention of the airport as a US Airways hub, and the new North Carolina Research Institute being developed by David Murdock in Kannapolis, all testify to the power of the regional model.

     Bryant is unwavering in his confidence that the organization will continue to be successful in recruiting new businesses. Says Bryant, “We are actively engaged in partnering and strategic thinking to support the continued development and growth of this market. In addition to its dynamic, hands-on corporate civic-mindedness, Charlotte also has a young, energetic new leadership roster at CRP, the Chamber, and CCCP, as well as the Charlotte Tourism and Visitors Authority. As a team, we share the same objectives and a renewed sense of purpose which is seated in collaboration and cooperation. We have and will  continue to meet together to make sure we are on track with fulfilling the obligations we have been charged with.”

     The responsibilities for this group are rather heady. Public murmurs about spending have graduated to a rallying cry, and as evidenced in the Arena debacle and the controversy concerning building the NASCAR Hall of Fame, one can’t help but wonder if Bryant and his compadres have concerns about eroding support for development, of any kind.

     Bryant’s short answer: “Nope.” He suggests, “There has been no let up in the commitment of this community. Corporate involvement is as strong as it’s ever been. You need only to look at Bank of America and Wachovia to see that. I think that, as long as the private sector steps up, the public sector will find a way to play its role.”

     Right now, transportation is a major, if not the major issue in terms of money. Highway construction, light rail, increasing public transportation, inner belts, the outer belt, bypasses, toll roads, congestion   issues, and competition for projects present  major headaches.

     Bryant concedes transportation issues should be at the top of the ‘to-do’ list. “We are a growing community and good or bad, we are spreading out. Everyone says, ‘We don’t want to be like Atlanta,’ and the only way we can avoid that is to build the infrastructure. We have people that want to move here, and not many people are leaving. While we are nowhere close to the degree of congestion Atlanta has become famous for, we cannot let our population growth outpace our development of infrastructure.”

     Regional challenges also include the decline in textile manufacturing and the tobacco industry, and the naturally evolving character of the economy. But Bryant is familiar with these challenges and adheres to the basic game plan. He explains, “Industry isn’t hiring bodies anymore. It’s hiring brains. The sad reality is the days of making a decent living with low skills are gone – those jobs have gone overseas. But the region is active in taking advantage of advanced manufacturing opportunities and the technology related to supporting them. Plus, we have significant resources to train our population to fill those jobs.”

     Bryant cites the Kannapolis-based North Carolina Research Campus as a shining example of private and public synergy meeting regional needs, and with extensive experience in recruiting for biotechnology, he should know. “Investors have put together a plan to ensure that the amenities and initial development will be very attractive in terms of money to support research, providing a first class lab and vital   university support.”

     While he cedes that sustained commitment and smart development will determine the degree of success of the campus, he is satisfied that it will be worth the effort. “It is a well-researched vision with a lot of resources behind it. So, I cannot help but be optimistic.”

     In fact, the cover of the November 2005 issue of industry publication Site Selection Magazine touted Murdock’s North Carolina Research Campus as a case study for endeavors of its kind. In the very same issue, North Carolina won the honor of receiving top billing for the Nation’s Best Business Climate as ranked by state. For Ronnie Bryant, who has been recognized on the covers of the magazine several times, North Carolina seems like a pretty good place to continue his professional development, as well.

 

Player Stats

     These days Ronnie Bryant is making the rounds of the region, putting names with faces and gearing up to present CRP’s anxiously awaited five-year economic development plan which is due for its big reveal in first quarter 2006. One of his daughters is currently attending CPCC, and two other children are enrolled in universities in Pittsburgh and St. Louis. He and his wife, a teacher, look forward to finalizing the purchase of a property in southeast Charlotte and undertaking community involvements. Bryant is eyeing the Urban League and the United Way as possible interests, both of which he had participated with in other cities.

     Bryant is also presiding over the 2006-2007 Board of Directors for the International Economic Development Council, which governs a 4,500 member organization tackling economic development concerns throughout the United States and other member countries. The post, for which he is well suited, will also give him ample insight into themes that will directly benefit his day-to-day affairs at CRP, and in good stead, the rest of us in his care.

 

Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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