By Jack Rogers
From the September/October 2021 Issue
Anyone who was surprised in January when we named North Carolina our 2020 State of the Year (SOTY) hasn’t been paying attention to the drumbeat of positive news that has been coming out of NC and filling the pages of this magazine.
Our SOTY designation, Business Facilities’ top honor, followed a powerful showing in our 2020 State Rankings Report, which featured top-10 results for NC in rankings categories including Best Business Climate, Workforce Development, Foreign Direct Investment, Biotechnology and Fastest-Growing States.
But if you think North Carolina is resting on its laurels in 2021, think again. NC has already secured a top contender for our other big award (Deal of the Year); the Tar Heel State is busy expanding one of the nation’s leading tech talent pipelines, attracting young talent with an affordable and superior quality of life. The gut punch of the pandemic hasn’t knocked North Carolina off its growth trajectory, and Governor Roy Cooper is spearheading an effort to make sure that post-pandemic growth is equity-driven. In an exclusive interview with BF, Gov. Cooper gave us an inside look at these and other initiatives that aim to keep NC on top.
APPLE PICKS RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK FOR $1-BILLION CAMPUS
North Carolina landed one of the most coveted economic development projects of this or any year when it convinced Apple to put its new $1 billion East Coast campus in the state, bringing 3,000 new jobs with an average salary of $185,000 to Research Triangle Park. The East Coast campus, which will focus on cutting-edge research in machine learning and artificial intelligence, is the first of what the tech giant says will be $430 billion in new U.S. investments by Apple over the next five years.
We asked Gov. Cooper how Research Triangle Park secured the pole position in Apple’s tech-project sweepstakes.
“North Carolina and the Research Triangle Park (RTP) area are magnets for all kinds of industries, and Apple is just one of the latest examples in companies taking advantage of the opportunity it presents. The RTP area is on the forefront of innovation thanks to the abundance of highly skilled workers, a comparatively low cost of living and a high concentration of research universities, including Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, NC State and nearby North Carolina A&T State University, which produces more Black engineers than any other four-year college in the country, Cooper said.
The governor added, “companies like Apple know that North Carolina is a welcoming state that values diversity and inclusion and abhors discrimination in any form. They know our state is where they can find the workforce they need to grow and thrive and where their employees will enjoy living. That’s a great recipe for economic recruitment.”
As part of its campus project, Apple has agreed to invest $110 million in state infrastructure and to create a $100-million fund to support education and community initiatives in the Raleigh-Durham area. BF asked Gov. Cooper whether these types of community initiatives will serve as a model for future economic development projects in NC.
“This investment will have a significant impact beyond job creation, and we appreciate Apple understanding the importance of investing in communities on all fronts to better the lives of North Carolinians. We’re always focused on ways to strengthen communities across the state and will keep working to bring the biggest and best employers to North Carolina who share those values,” Cooper said.
With a national shortage of skilled workers growing every day, states are racing to expand their tech talent pipelines. Cooper said he expects the Apple project to add to the significant momentum NC has generated in its efforts to develop a diverse tech talent pipeline.
“North Carolina’s tech industry is constantly growing and getting stronger every day, and it is critical that companies know that they can find the workforce they need to succeed when they locate here,” he said. “Even prior to their announcement in March, Apple was working with North Carolina universities to strengthen our skilled workforce and prepare the tech entrepreneurs of the future. We’re looking forward to this partnership being bolstered even more by the new campus and will continue to invest in partnerships with our universities, community colleges and the tech sector to ensure North Carolina remains an attractive home for these employers.”
North Carolina is one of a growing number of states to build its recovery strategy around equity-driven economic development, prioritizing serving underserved communities and diversifying talent pipelines.
“Ensuring a shared recovery and strengthened opportunities for all North Carolinians is critical to emerging from this pandemic even stronger than before,” Cooper said. “We’ve focused on supporting historically underutilized businesses in many ways, particularly through our RETOOLNC program that has been instrumental in granting more than $13 million in funding to assist in the economic recovery of state certified minority and women-owned businesses.”
North Carolina’s 2021 Strategic Economic Development Plan places significant emphasis on recruiting talent in equitable ways to ensure that the state’s economy continues to grow in ways that are diverse, accessible and prosperous, Cooper said.
“Our state is stronger because of our commitment to equity and inclusion, and our recovery will uplift all North Carolinians,” the governor declared.
NC LAUNCHES THE FIRST OFFICE OF DIGITAL EQUITY AND LITERACY
Gov. Cooper told us he is working to expand rural development programs in North Carolina. “I grew up in rural eastern North Carolina and I know the opportunities that communities like mine hold for families and employers alike,” he said.
Cooper continued, “our state is fortunate to be home to so many vibrant rural communities with many advantages, but I recognize that rural areas face unique challenges as well, and I’m committed to helping them succeed. That means ensuring that they have access to the resilient infrastructure that attracts long-term employers and job training to help people get the skills to find work without leaving home.”
Gov. Cooper launched an initiative called Hometown Strong, a program that works with local leaders in rural North Carolina to break down silos in state government, identify their needs and get them critical support. The Rural Downtown Transformation Grant in NC’s American Rescue Plan proposal would provide $200 million in grants to rural communities to both revitalize their downtowns and acquire land and buildings to help slow outmigration.
“Any rural development effort is not complete without significant investments in health care, technology and education. Expanding Medicaid and access to high-speed internet is essential for strengthening any rural community, as well as ensuring every child in North Carolina can receive a good education,” Cooper told BF. “The funding included in the American Rescue Plan presents an unprecedented opportunity to invest in every community across our state, and we must take advantage of it.”
Gov. Cooper has proposed $1.2 billion to improve broadband access and affordability in NC. We asked him how important closing the “digital divide” is to expanding opportunity and growth throughout the state.
“Access to high-speed internet isn’t optional in today’s schools, healthcare or our economy. If you don’t have it, you get left behind,” Cooper said. “My Close the Digital Divide Plan would increase access to affordable high-speed internet service and ensure that every North Carolinian has the devices and skills they need to fully participate in the digital society. It not only focuses on getting services to every household in the state, but ensures that the service is affordable and that residents have the devices and skills they need to succeed in the digital economy.”
Gov. Cooper has launched the nation’s first Office of Digital Equity and Literacy that works closely with NC’s Broadband Infrastructure Office to close the digital divide in a way that prioritizes equity as much as infrastructure to ensure that underserved communities aren’t left out.
“Lack of access to affordable broadband is a deal breaker in a growing state like North Carolina, and we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with the infusion of federal funds to finally fix this problem,” the governor said.
Millennials are poised to make up nearly 75 percent of the U.S. workforce, and this huge demographic group is voting with its feet when it comes to choosing where it wants to work: increasingly, millennials are seeking locations that offer a combination of affordability and a superior quality of life. Cooper says they should look no further than North Carolina.
“North Carolina’s superior and affordable quality of life is absolutely one of the strongest relocation draws for people of all ages, including millennials. As the traditional work environment changes before our eyes, places with strong broadband access and prime geographic locations are becoming more popular—and our state offers both,” he said. “North Carolina is a welcoming state that is a great place to live, work and raise a family. And I’m not the only one who has noticed: this year, seven North Carolina cities were ranked in U.S. News and World Report’s 150 Best Places to Live list.”
In the wake of global supply chain disruptions during the pandemic, the trend toward reshoring of manufacturing supply chains is accelerating. BF asked Gov. Cooper if North Carolina is getting its share of manufacturing jobs coming back to the U.S. from overseas.
“The pandemic has exposed a number of critical supply chain issues with the potential to disrupt the economy. Addressing the gaps has contributed to bringing manufacturing back to the United States,” he said. “North Carolina is uniquely positioned along the eastern seaboard, ideal for transporting goods by truck, rail or our ports and I am excited about the significant interest we’re seeing in increasing manufacturing jobs in our state.”
Cooper added, “our strong community college system continues to produce the best-trained workforce in the country, and can partner with employers to tailor training for specific industries. We’re also fortunate to offer an unparalleled quantity of large, flat build sites with access to energy and water—perfect for companies looking to relocate and build their manufacturing plants. There are bright days ahead for manufacturing in North Carolina.”
ON THE FRONT LINES OF THE FIGHT AGAINST CLIMATE CHANGE
As a coastal state with barrier islands, North Carolina is on the front lines of the battle to mitigate the impact of climate change. Gov. Cooper told us NC is on track to meet its goal of reducing the state’s carbon emissions by 70 percent (from 2005 levels) by 2030.
“Our renewable energy goals are ambitious because we know how critical it is to meet this moment and take action to protect our planet—and create great-paying jobs while we do it,” Cooper said. “Not only are our emission goals important for the health of the planet, they’re also critical to expanding the clean energy economy in our state. The biggest employers across the world have their own renewable energy goals and want to be in states that will help them achieve them. I want these businesses to know that we will work with them and that North Carolina will be a strong partner in combating climate change for decades to come.”
President Biden has established a national goal of 30 gigawatts of installed offshore wind power by 2030. New York and New Jersey are making significant investments in offshore wind power. We asked Gov. Cooper if North Carolina will be a major player in offshore wind power.
“We understand the opportunities presented through offshore wind power and have already been working to make North Carolina a strong destination not only for deploying offshore wind as an energy source, but also for manufacturing the parts and equipment to make that possible,” Cooper said.
The governor told us that North Carolina has developed a three-state collaboration with Maryland and Virginia to advance offshore wind projects in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, providing a framework to cooperatively promote, develop and expand offshore wind energy and the accompanying industry supply chain and workforce.
The Kitty Hawk Offshore project, scheduled to begin in 2026, will create a Wind Energy Area projected to provide enough power for 700,000 homes. “The potential development of a Wind Energy Area off the coast of Wilmington, NC also will contribute in cementing our place as a major player in offshore wind power,” Cooper said.
A partnership between Conservation Corps North Carolina and the North Carolina Coastal Federation is restoring wetlands in North Carolina. We asked Gov. Cooper what kind of long-term action will be needed to protect the vulnerable Outer Banks from rising sea levels.
“We know tourism is a major economic driver for our state and we also know that climate change poses an existential threat to our communities. We need aggressive action and partnerships between the private and public sectors to combat it,” Cooper said. “Our Department of Environmental Quality launched the Resilient Coastal Communities Program to facilitate a community-driven process for setting coastal resilience goals, assessing existing and needed local capacity, and identifying and prioritizing projects to enhance community resilience to coastal hazards. The NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency has also taken action to support communities as they rebuild in more resilient ways to ensure longevity and prosperity for years to come.”
THROWING DOWN THE BBQ GAUNTLET
We asked Gov. Cooper which perception he’d like to change about North Carolina.
“We’re fortunate to have a reputation as a welcoming state with a high-quality workforce and remarkable, resilient people. And that’s going to continue to be a selling point for our state,” he said.
“However, across the globe, a few misinformed people are bold enough to assert that North Carolina does not have the best barbecue in the world. This is entirely false. One of my favorite places to grab some good old-fashioned eastern-style barbecue is Doug Sauls’ in my hometown of Nashville, NC. Our state’s barbecue simply can’t be beat!”
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