It can be done

I’m always on the lookout for interesting economic development examples that may have relevance to us here in New Brunswick.

Take the example of Kannapolis, North Carolina.  It’s located about 80 kms outside of Charlotte, North Carolina.  The City was just honoured with the  U.S. Department of Commerce’s 2009 Excellence in Economic Development Award.  The city received the award in the category of Excellence in Economic Diversification Strategies, which recognizes responses to plant closures and other economic dislocations, that promote economic diversification.

Cabarrus and Rowan counties lost 4,300 manufacturing jobs when textile manufacturer Kannapolis-basedPillowtex Corp. closed in July 2003. Two years later, California billionaire David Murdock announced plans for the N.C. Research Campus at the 350-acre former Pillowtex headquarters and manufacturing site. The life-sciences hub includes the participation of Duke University, the UNC System, the N.C. Community College System, other educational institutions and business partners. The total investment is expected to reach $1.8 billion.

There are a couple of learnings from this story:

1. It can be done.  I get tired of hearing that Bathurst or Miramichi or Edmundston can’t attract investment unless it is related to the forestry.  Sure it will take some creativity but when old industries decline, new ones need to emerge and government can play a facilitation role in infrastructure, workforce development, tax incentives, promotion, etc.

2. The most common theme I hear is “why?”.  Why would someone want to put a Research Campus in a place like Bathurst or Moncton for that matter?  Go ask this guy in North Carolina.  It can be done.

3. Brownfield redevelopment can work.  Don’t just plough under those old forest products mills.  Google built a data centre in one in Finland.  This guy build a research park in an old textile mill.  It can be done.

9 thoughts on “It can be done

  1. Several years ago I was commissioned by ACOA to develop Applied Research, Development & Innovation Options for NBCC Miramichi. Two options were given – Community Wellness & Sustainable Living, with details on how various parts of the community could work together. I don’t think my report ever saw the light of day.

  2. North Carolina has a recent (well, a few decades anyway) of investment in research parks. The original was, I believe, the research triangle near Raleigh. That was largely a government initiative; wonder what the ROI has been? Must be huge. Apparently over 30K are employed at the park, with average salaries of approx 55K. Shocking what ‘corporate welfare’ can accomplish.

    If I had been asked to develop R&D options for the Miramichi several years ago, I would have said plow funds into natural resources R&D – go for the high-wage value-added products. But you are right, David, first people have to believe it can be done, or at least someone with clout needs to believe it can be done. I guess Shawn does not believe it.

  3. Almost anything in ED CAN be done. But there are a few missing pieces here. First, 80 kms outside Charlotte is essentially a suburb, and a suburb of a MASSIVE population base. Not only that, but North Carolina has had one of the fastest growing populations in the US.

    More importantly, its a central point of industry and education ALREADY. It was the SCHOOLS that spearheaded this operation, so to go back to Richard’s frequent complaint-how much ‘innovation’ have you seen from the post secondary schools in NB?

    But investments from billionaire’s is pretty germane. There was a guy a couple of posts down praising Irving, etc., just because they provide some jobs. So let’s compare. Irving packed up and moved to Bermuda, most of their profits reside internationally, they pay very little tax. For ‘think tanks’ we generally see some handouts to small housing co-ops or other ‘non industrial’ projects like parks to make them look good. In education, we saw them put some money into journalism, and now we see exactly how interested they are in ‘journalism’, and we now see just what a fantastic growth opportunity journalism has been for the two schools dumb enough to make them a focus.

    Again, here in Waterloo the two founders of RIM, in about the last five years when they’ve been ‘secure’, have invested and started about five different think tanks, with several more in the works. The university here is building umpteen new schools, and is expanding into a medical school, and a law school.

    So its not a question of ‘IF’ it can be done. But for the ‘why’, again, why would the RIM guys go “lets go build some of this stuff in New Brunswick”. THey’ve probably never HEARD of the province, and might well wonder why a small province with a miniscule population would need such investment with two of the richest families in the world residing there. Irving IS investing-but it always cost NB big-either ignoring environmental and health regulations to build refineries (theres a reason NO new refineries have been built in NA in decades), or in outright tax concessions to LNG terminals or bailouts to their pulp mill.

    So thats the philanthropic angle, maybe its just the miserly scots presbyterian nature of the masters of NB, I don’t know. These kinds of issues take a private money person to get the ball rolling, the schools know they have little money to do much, they provide the ‘name’ for researchers, but thats it. So of COURSE it ‘can be done’ all it takes is a feel good billionaire with the desire it contribute. Gee, isn’t it too bad that New Brunswick doesn’t have any billionaire families.

    Ask yourself this, IF you think this is a political problem, how much trouble do you think the province and the school system would give if Irving suddenly said “we want to buy the Dalhousie mill and set up a research facility to house dozens of scientists”. In case you haven’t noticed, the province is ALREADY auctioning off the public education system to private investors (take a look at Spielo’s investment or the grade school textbooks with the covers praising the wonders of ‘natural gas’).

  4. I was going to say basically what mikel said.

    – NB doesn’t have the population base that NC does, and Bathurst isn’t an 80 km drive from Charlotte or even Charlottetown
    – NB doesn’t have Duke University or anything like it
    – NB’s billionaires have been poor corporate citizens, investing in ways to prevent NB’s growth rather than to foster it

  5. It can be done. But we need some luck. And in our case, luck is when preparation meets opportunity. Unfortunately, we’ve always allowed ourselves to miss every single wave [opportunity] that has come in (other then that of call centres). It’s time we made our own luck.

  6. Luck has nothing to do with it. North Carolina didn’t build up its R&D industries to the point where there are 50,000 people employed in it by being ‘lucky’. Even in this case its not like this billionaire threw darts at a a wall and exclaimed “Ah, I’ll put millions into North Carolina”. North Carolina has been particularly hard hit by the recession, and no doubt this guy got the building for a song-perhaps even free.

    That is very true though that ‘luck is made’ and that preparation meets opportunity is a good way to characterize it. But again, current what is being ‘prepared’ is more investments in energy facilities, and virtually zero in value added products. The question again becomes, ‘how do you ‘prepare’ when you don’t have any say in the political arena’?

  7. NC decided to construct research parks in order to attract high-wage industries to NC. They had a built-in advantage of several high quality universities in the area. NB does not have high-quality unis, but quality can be improved and there is no magic to it (UNB has had some world-class research groups, but too often has let them slip away). I see no particular impediments, except the lack of interest on the part of governments to make it happen. This is a perfect example of where focus is required for long-term success. Instead, we focus on the short-term.

    The population argument being raised makes no sense to me. Investing in R&D attracts people; surely no one would expect 50 K jobs overnight. Its true that NB corporate citizens may lack a certain something, but why would anyone rely on them? NC certainly didn’t rely on home-grown entrepeneurs. The stimulus for NC research parks came mainly from the state and the feds. It can be done here as well.

    Political will to make this happen needs to be developed. Again, its about how we can change the conversation.

  8. That’s very true, and I certainly wasn’t meaning that it is ‘all up to Irving’, in fact I’d say the opposite. But in NC THIS investment David is talking about is a philanthropic venture, just like most of the think tanks being set up here are. My only other point is that it is a bit silly to WAIT for billionaires to ‘fix things up’, virtually no country in the world does that. What they DO is have a progressive tax system that doesn’t let the wealthy get away with highway robbery.

    In the US the Fox media chain has taken to calling Obama investments “socialism’ and asking ‘do we want to be Sweden?’ so The Daily Show sent a guy over to Sweden to check it out. He went to the home of the Sweden’s biggest pop sensation, their ‘Celine Dion’ and found that she lived in a modest studio apartment, did her own recycling, only had one television, etc. That’s a far cry from the US, and here in Canada where wealth inequality is continually growing-and in particular NB where the liberals have made very unequal tax changes, then put on the poor mouth to axe essential services.

    But there is an election coming up, so ‘changing the conversation’ IS the issue, and a blog won’t do that. Getting politically involved will help, in case people haven’t noticed, there is a LOT of distrust and anger at politicians in NB right now, hardly a week goes by that there isn’t some new gaffe. The conservatives have a new leader with a public website, and there is the NDP and Green Party, as well as a new Atlantica Party-and of course there is always running as an independant (or finding someone to). But NOW is when those decisions should be made, during an election campaign it is too late. The advice above is applicable to politics as well-preparation is the key to opportunity-which is how you ‘make your own luck’.

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