News: Charlotte Exclusives

Meet Ronnie Bryant

New regional development chief should fit right in. Uh-oh.

To judge the coverage the new chief of the Charlotte Regional Partnership has received, the Mecklenburg area landed a proven economic development expert in Ronnie Bryant. The Charlotte Observer cited his “impressive resume” and The Charlotte Business Journal called Bryant an “ideal candidate” for the job.

The trouble is Bryant’s track-record in Pittsburgh lacks any stellar achievements. His four-year stint at the head of the 10-county Pittsburgh Regional Alliance was marked by development plans that constantly tried to anticipate the next big thing – from chemicals, to robotics, to Airbus construction, to Indian immigrants.

In fact, the closest Bryant and the rest of official Pittsburgh came to a trophy-on-the-wall catch was a $20 million Siemens Westinghouse Power Corp. fuel cell plant that never actually entered production. Something called Site Selection Magazine, named the deal its “Breakthrough Deal for 2001.” Then economic reality intruded.

“They built the plant three years ago and it has never been occupied,” explains Dr. Frank Gamrat, an economist with the Allegheny Institute, a think-tank in Pittsburgh that researches local policy issues. Changing market conditions led Siemens to conclude they did not need the plant, which left some local officials fuming.

Another near-miss included a Morgan Stanley office that went to Baltimore instead of Pittsburgh along with the promise of 600 jobs. Aside from that, there’s not much to conclude that the largely publicly-funded, $2.2 million Charlotte Regional Partnership has landed a stellar deal-maker. It is clear, however, that the 16 counties that fund the CRP, along with some state help, desperately want a deal-maker, as do local developers who want someone to do their legwork for them.

There is little doubt that Bryant was saddled with a tough sell in Pittsburgh. An analysis of Pittsburgh’s commercial real estate conducted by Gamrat last January noted that Moody’s Investors Service rated Pittsburgh’s commercial real estate sector as one of the ten worst in the country based on business activity in 2004. A major factor in that situation was the inability of the city to keep corporate tenants in big office complexes as the city ratcheted up taxes, including a new payroll tax on all private employers. No amount of marketing from Bryant’s PRA could reverse that kind of negative business climate.

At the same time, regional officials showed a propensity to keep swinging for the fences with some, frankly, dopey ideas. A 2002 report from the Allegheny Institute put it this way:

“The National Center for Defense Robotics joins the Digital Greenhouse and the Life Sciences Greenhouse as another monument (under perpetual construction) to the idea that with enough money, $600 million in the case of the Life Sciences Greenhouse alone, this region can do anything that is already being done successfully elsewhere.”

And spend a lot of money while doing it, too. The same report found that while projections of jobs created by various development plans were 7,700, actual jobs were only 927. The cost to taxpayers: $46,600 per job.

In 2003, Bryant was reduced to cheering news that state government and hospitals were the two top generators of job growth in western Pennsylvania for 2002. Any port in a storm, one supposes, but government certainly should not be a top job-producer if your goal is a vibrant and growing economy.

Here’s the simple truth of the matter when it comes to economic growth: Econ development guys like Bryant, well-meaning and hard-working as they might be, cannot undue the fundamentals of a region’s business climate. If taxes are low, services good, and infrastructure sound, development will take care of itself. What a top-down, quasi-planned approach to the local economy can do, however, is waste a lot of time and money trying to pick winners while the fundamentals of good government go unaddressed.

So with that observation firmly in mind, there is only one thing left to say — Welcome to Charlotte, Mr. Bryant, you’ll fit right in.