Don’t Worry — Be Scrappy: How Charlotte Is Leaving the Recession in the Dust
Like just about every other community in the United States, Charlotte, North Carolina, was hit hard by the Great Recession — with an unemployment rate that topped out at 12 percent. But these days, things are looking up for North Carolina’s largest metropolitan area, says Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce.
“Coming into this year, we’ve asked area business owners two questions. The first is: ‘How do you feel about the U.S. economy?’ More of our business owners are pessimistic about the overall U.S. economy than they are optimistic. But when we ask: ‘How do you feel about the Charlotte economy?’ there is a high level of optimism.”
Much of that optimism comes from one source, Morgan explains: “We are hosting the Democratic National Convention this year, and every day the newspaper talks about how ‘This contract’s been signed,’ or ‘Here’s the hotel where this party is going to be held.’ It is dominating the conversation here as we prepare to welcome all of these visitors.”
There is some risk involved in hosting an important event like the Democratic National Convention, including potential security concerns — should things get ugly like they did at the 2008 Republican convention in Minneapolis and St. Paul; or public relations concerns — if some event tarnishes the city’s reputation; or economic concerns — if putting too much emphasis on one event taxes Charlotte’s strained coffers. But Morgan says Charlotte’s business leaders are putting those concerns aside, for now at least.
Hosting an event the size of the Democratic National Convention is “unprecedented here in Charlotte,” Morgan says. “We’ve never done anything like this before. There is a strong sense that all of these visitors are going to come here, and they are going to be impressed with the way we do things, and that will lead to more good things for Charlotte.” And Morgan thinks an attitude like that is more powerful than fear.
Even with the economic boost provided by hosting a major convention, Charlotte-area business owners still have to overcome some hurdles to boost growth, Morgan admits. “Our small-business owners still talk about the difficulties they are facing when trying to access capital,” he explains. “Even with the economic reset, small businesses are trying to figure out the changed credit environment and the new banking regulations.”
That lack of access to capital can limit business owners’ ability to take risk, since they just can’t finance expansion on their own. “They need a bit of extra support to take on the risk,” he says. “And that support needs to be both financial and emotional.”
To help boost the futures of local business owners, the Charlotte Chamber is developing initiatives that will help encourage entrepreneurship, Morgan says. One successful program is called the Charlotte Minority Economic Development Initiative. “Currently, 18 minority-owned firms are participating,” he explains. “We have funded a two-year accelerator program designed to provide funding for building capacity in participating firms. When we started the initiative, these firms employed a total of 1,000 people. Nine months later, they now employ 1,248 people. That’s a great measure of success.”
Other good business news helps keep Charlotte’s business engine running. In 2011, Chiquita Brands International announced it will move its global headquarters from Cincinnati to Charlotte this year.
“This means 417 new jobs with an average salary of $106,000,” Morgan says. “It’s a real vote of confidence for a city that’s on the rise.” — Andy Steiner