Opinion: Carolina Beat

The Cult of the Next Big Thing

RALEIGH — You can call it the Cult of the Next Big Thing, the belief that the key to transforming the economy of most any place is a single, massive project. The economic development equivalent, if you will, of a game-winning grand slam in the bottom of the ninth. And yet, these deals are typically something so simple that they can be reduced to a single word or phrase.

Take Dell. Or aerotropolis. Or the Randy Parton Theatre. Or if you’re from Charlotte or the Triangle, transit.

In the real world, things are neither as certain nor as simple as the economic development drones make them out to be. And because the details do matter, these theoretical economic development grand slams have often proved, in practice, to be strikeouts.

Consider Dell. Lured in part by hundreds of millions of dollars in state and local incentives, Dell Computer’s decision to build a computer assembly plant in Forsyth County was seen as critical to the Triad’s efforts to revitalize the region for the 21st century. After all, what could possibly be more critical in the information age than making computers?

A lot of things, actually, as the Triad found out when Dell announced recently that it was closing the facility after less than five years in operation. Those little things certainly mattered. Dell’s plant made desktop computers. Desktops are nice and all, but the demand for them has peaked as businesses and individuals increasingly prefer laptops.

More broadly, just because you manufacture computers, it doesn’t place you at the cutting edge of information technology. Large-scale computer manufacturing is still, well, manufacturing. Having lots of semi-skilled workers put things together may have been a revolutionary industrial concept a century ago. It certainly isn’t now.

And Dell paid like a large-scale employer of semi-skilled labor. That is to say OK at around $12 to $15 an hour, especially for the region — per capita incomes are lower in the Triad than the Triangle or Charlotte — but not outstanding. Certainly nowhere near enough to justify the massive buzz the facility generated.

Of course there might never have been that sort of buzz had state and local officials and the news media asked the tough though obvious questions.

“We looked at the Dell project with rose-colored glasses,” said economic developer Rob Bencini to the Greensboro News & Record. Bencini has previously overseen economic development policy for Guilford County.

Sadly, those same rose-colored glasses are all too common when it comes to economic development projects.

Roanoke Rapids’ next big thing was supposed to be an entertainment complex built around a theater headed by Dolly Parton’s brother. The venture flopped and local taxpayers got hit with a big property tax hike to help cover the costs. The real question though, is what best describes Randy Parton: Is he a has-been or a never-was?

Kinston, meanwhile, was supposed to be transformed as companies flocked to build manufacturing plants next to the local airport. Why? Because the airport was now called the Global TransPark and had a ridiculously long runway. Nearly two decades later, those factories still haven’t landed beside the runway in Kinston.

Charlotte, meanwhile, continues to pursue an economic development vision built around a multibillion-dollar light rail and street car system aimed at convincing finance types from places like New York City, Boston, and San Francisco that the Queen City isn’t such a bad place to spend a few years. Given the condition of the city’s two big banks, that hardly seems like a viable strategy going forward.

But then again, when have mere facts ever stopped a community from pursuing the Next Big Thing?

Michael Lowrey is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.