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Who's the Competition? 

Declining business recruitment has to mean something

A shocked silence descended upon the meeting chamber as Charlotte City Council members confronted a shocking truth too horrible to contemplate. The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, coming next February to Charlotte, should have been a slam-dunk for the Queen City, but it wasn't. Charlotte had had to fight Raleigh tooth and nail for it, Arts & Science Council President Lee Keesler informed the council.

"I don't know if it surprises you to hear that, but it surprised me to hear that we were competing with Raleigh for anything that had to do with cultural activities or facilities or programs or cultural education of any sort," Keesler said. "But we were, in fact, competing with Raleigh."

Then Keesler, a former Wachovia executive who has turned smacking the council around in public into an artform of late, added the final insult.

"The question I find myself asking a lot is 10 years from now, 15 years from now, 20 years from now, is there room in the Carolinas for two great regions?" he asked. "What I would suggest to all of us is if we are in open competition for Dead Sea Scrolls, we are competing on other fronts, too."

Coming from a bank suit like Keesler, even a former one, those words stung. The collective shame in the room was practically palpable. All rustling of papers and backroom conversations ceased. Politicians and bureaucrats avoided eye contact with each other.

Granted, Keesler was in the middle of trying to extort $132 million from the council for his arts package at the time, but still he struck a nerve.

As soon as he got the chance, Mayor Pat McCrory smacked Keesler back down, insisting that Charlotte's real competition is in other regions of the country, not here, where we all work together.

"I highly recommend that not be repeated again," McCrory huffed.

Which means, of course, that Keesler might be on to something. He's not the only one. Forbes just ranked the Raleigh-Durham area the second best destination in the nation for business and careers. Charlotte ranked 42nd.

Creative Class guru Richard Florida now ranks Raleigh-Durham sixth in the nation on his list of the hottest destinations for the nation's best and brightest. Charlotte is ranked 28th.

At the moment, what all this means isn't exactly clear.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg region's business recruitment numbers have always been the best in the state, and 2004 was no exception. But there is one small blip on the radar screen worth noting. According to Charlotte Chamber data, the county attracted 632 new businesses last year. That's the lowest number we've posted since 1990. Chamber officials plead "recession," which no doubt did depress our numbers, but the fact is that the number of new businesses moving to this county peaked in 1994 at 1,052 and has been steadily declining ever since.

Not to worry, at least for now. Raleigh-Durham, like most mid-sized cities, would still kill for 632 new business announcements every year.

But there's another trend worth noting as well. According to NC Department of Commerce data, a significant portion of the business Charlotte is reeling in is building and service-oriented industry, while the Raleigh area is pulling in new science, computer and technology firms.

Raleigh still has a long way to go to catch up with us. Unlike Charlotte, it has no big-time sports teams unless you count NC State's Wolfpack. Charlotte is the second largest banking center in the country and is home to five Fortune 500 companies. Raleigh only has one Fortune 500 company.

But Raleigh has a few critical things going for it that, on paper, suggest it has what it takes to pass Charlotte in the economic development game. Quite frankly, if you're a firm looking to move to North Carolina and don't need to be near a major banking center or a major hub airport, Raleigh is a much better deal than Charlotte by just about every measure.

While students in 70 percent of our high schools score in the bottom third among high schools in the state, 70 percent of Wake County's high schools score in the top third. And Raleigh spends about $550 less per student to achieve those better scores. The John Locke Foundation ranks Mecklenburg 10th in the state in property taxes, while Wake is ranked 36th.

Not only do you get to keep more of what you make in Wake County, but, on average, you'll make more. At $63,129, the median family income is $6,000 higher in Wake County than it is in Mecklenburg. And Charlotte's violent crime, murder, rape and robbery rates are nearly double those of Raleigh's, so you're less likely to shed blood needlessly if you live there.

All this may be adding up to something. Two years ago, builders in Wake County pulled more building permits for housing units than those in Mecklenburg did for the first time. But hey, who's counting? Not McCrory, who insists that the cities in this state are all on the same team. When Raleigh wins, we all win, he says.

So why the uncomfortable silence?

tara.servatius@cln.com

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