by Laura Douglass, The Pilot 8/7/18
North Carolina has three attributes that are well-known to all Japanese business executives: the Research Triangle Park, Duke University and Pinehurst No. 2.
“Our quality of life is second to none, they know what we have to offer,” said N.C. Commerce Secretary Tony Copeland, speaking to members of Moore Partners in Progress on Tuesday.
Named to his post in January 2017, Copeland has served as an assistant commerce secretary and also as an executive vice president and general counsel of BTI, a major telecommunications company responsible for installing more than 5,000 miles of fiber optic cable in the Carolinas and along the eastern seaboard. Copeland is a graduate of Duke University and the Western Michigan University School of Law.
“The first thing I told Gov. Cooper is we need to bring stability and predictability, and get the social issues off the table,” Copeland said. “We repealed HB2 and that was the beginning of working in a bipartisan way to reach consistency on economic development.”
“I know what businesses want. They want to make money but, to do that, they need to have consistency, predictability and stability,” he added.
Over the past year, he has led the state in putting together substantial incentive packages to attract big names — Toyota-Mazda, Apple Inc. and Amazon, to name a few — but competition among states is fierce and there are many factors that come into play. Copeland said the biggest challenge for economic development in North Carolina is education, and outlined his priorities as workforce talent, infrastructure, taxes and incentives.
“In a disruptive economy, we have to continually look forward,” he said. “Without a workforce, no company is coming,”
North Carolina is the country’s ninth most populous state and approximately 70 percent of all jobs are located in its urban areas. Copeland said he’d like to see the state look at light rail options for congested areas.
“Unfortunately, there is an urban rural divide, politically, because our urban areas are economic hubs. It is all about talent,” he said, noting that many workers commute in from outlying rural areas. “We have to focus on infrastructure if we are going to be serious about building rural economic development.”
North Carolina also has one of the lowest income tax rates in the nation — named the 11th best tax climate in the U.S. by the Tax Foundation in 2018 — but infrastructure, workforce, and an appropriate site are additional factors that companies consider.
“If you have a site that is not ready to build on, it is just real estate,” said Copeland. “Most large projects come in through consultants. They don’t come in by people traveling to a trade show. We should be using drones to show rural sites. Right now a consultant will fly in, they will want to know all your facts about the site and your workforce, perhaps they will take a helicopter over the site, and then they leave. We need to move into this world more rapidly.
“If you want to get into building, you need to get going on these sites,” he added, noting it can take up to a decade to get infrastructure in place.
A positive step, he said, was passage of the Build NC Bond Act earlier this year. The measure allows the state treasurer to issue $3 billion in “special indebtedness” bonds for road and infrastructure projects, with consultation by two legislative committees prior to each round of spending.
“This is not just about roads, but also makes sure we put broadband along those roads, and charging stations along those road,” Copeland said. “We are looking at alternative methods for funding highways. Both the Department of Transportation and General Assembly are looking at this and I am confident in where we are going.”
Looking ahead to the possibility of Amazon setting up a second headquarters in the Raleigh area, or a similar large employer, Partners Executive Director Pat Corso asked Copeland what Moore County could do to prepare.
“You need to look at your infrastructure and zoning. Hypothetically, Amazon would add 60,000 employees over the next 17 years. If Apple comes, that would be thousands more,” Copeland said. “These people will have expendable income. You would be the recipient of that quality of life of those people coming to the Triangle.”
“I would be looking at developing what you already have going with your hospitality and tourism,” he added. “Infrastructure and talent are the two main things, and deciding what do you want to be. You have to watch what you ask for.”