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Are we really one North Carolina?

North Carolina is a perplexing state. When one looks at its key economic, technological and workforce indicators, you would expect them to be stronger. While the state enjoys lots of good numbers regarding higher education, employment generation, innovation assets, and other similar measures, it features very troubling indicators when it comes to inequality (between households and different regions) and a workforce that is losing ground with respect to pay and required skills.

Add these all up, and a discernable gap between North Carolina’s image and its reality appears. Indeed, on many scorecards, the state has only a middling economy and is far from the success story we’ve all heard so much about. Instead, the state is held back by its divisions.

In the frequently used phrase, “One North Carolina,” we have an exciting, easily understandable, and relevant vision of where we want to get. Governor Easley has used the phrase as the name for one of his signature economic development programs. The term even has potential as a slogan for the bumper sticker.

But do we have a real commitment to what it will take to get there? I don’t think so.

When a public policy choice is posed, do policymakers decide, in large part, on the basis of whether it will get us closer to this vision? Not often enough.

Despite its considerable virtues in some regions as a prime and successful example of the “New Economy,” much of North Carolina continues to languish in the “Old Economy,” knowing and watching its old sources of wealth disappear. In these areas, our state is clearly dividing up into two North Carolinas – a state of haves and have nots.

So what is to be done? Merely talking about and hoping for the emergence of “one North Carolina” will not change or arrest the challenging economic patterns that we confront. Especially in light of the growing signs of a national recession and the continued unraveling of our state’s traditional economic base, there are actions that should not be postponed.

Here is a “to do” list that North Carolina leaders must undertake if we are going to break out of our current pattern:

  1. Use the increasing pressure on the state’ current fiscal base to make necessary, but long put off, tax policy reforms that would modernize the North Carolina’s revenue system
  2. Establish an overall cap on total business incentive spending.
  3. Experiment during the recession with job creating tax credits for mid-sized and larger enterprises and hiring subsidies for small existing firms.
  4. Rethink the current economic development strategy for struggling “tier one” counties of mainly relying on incentives to attract firms and, instead, develop new approaches that focus more on homegrown economy, regional efforts, and upgrading social and human capital
  5. Make entrepreneurship and the retention, expansion, and modernization of existing industry a higher priority.
  6. Set and keep a goal for the financial accessibility of post secondary schooling and retraining for the state.
  7. Recognize the importance of growth management and a sustained high quality of life in the state’s future.
  8. Make the construction “One North Carolina” the touchstone for all major decisions.
  9. Act, like we mean it, regarding the proposition; that we rise or fall together.
  10. Dedicate ourselves to the goal of good governance – a more efficient, right sized, professional, transparent, and respected state government

Of course, none of these steps will be easy. Each will take visionary leadership and a commitment to long-term thinking, rather than politically expedient “quick fixes.” Each will also require some modest short-term sacrifice – especially from people and regions that seem to be doing okay in the present. To build “one North Carolina” in which all succeed, all must contribute in a direct and intentional way. In the long run, however, all will benefit if we muster the discipline and commitment to save and invest in our people and their future.

Let’s get started.
William Schweke is Vice President of Learning and Innovation at the economic policy think tank, CFED [1]