Thursday, January 30, 2014

Three questions Atlanta's 'Snowmageddon' raise for Charlotte

Several of my Facebook friends have posted this article from Politico, which takes a long hard look at the urban planning and development missteps that helped set the stage for the 'Snowmageddon' that hit Atlanta Tuesday. Basically, the writer, a longtime observer of Atlanta's history and development, concludes that the lack of a coherent regional mass transit system and fractured local government have left the Atlanta metro area vulnerable to gridlock in a fast-developing civic emergency. Judging from our story today, our local elected officials deserve a tip of the hat for correctly zigging where the Atlanta officials zagged.

Still, the whole thing left me with a couple of questions about Charlotte's growth and development:

Question No. 1: Will our mass transit and roads system keep up? The Charlotte-Mecklenburg region is growing. We're beginning to build the next leg of the LYNX light rail system. But it's just the beginning of our planned regional mass transit network, and at the moment, there's no money to pay for the rest of the Charlotte Area Transit System's 2030 plan.

Question No. 2: Is our regional cooperation strong enough? The region has a history of counties and cities coming together around broader civic goals like transportation and economic development. But the recent fight over Charlotte-Douglas International Airport exposed some serious cracks in our regional armor. And folks in fast-growing Ballantyne have been making noises for years about pulling out of the city of Charlotte and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Question No. 3: Is the changing nature of how people live, work and play reducing the chances that the next few stages of Charlotte's development will mirror Atlanta's descent toward the dark side of the suburban sprawl equation? I've attended a number of local and regional conferences recently in which major Charlotte developers (most recently SouthPark builder Johnny Harris) have stressed that many in the younger generation of workers/consumers simply aren't as attracted as their parents were to the idea of living in far-flung suburbs. They want to live near the urban core, with walkable neighborhoods, street-level retail and mass transit at the ready. The South End makes the obvious case in point.

Maybe what happened in Atlanta was just the product of bureaucratic bungling, and nothing more. But as Charlotte's population growth propels it inexorably toward the upper ranks of America's cities, these sure seem like questions we should all be asking.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Coming to Charlotte: 50 high-paying manufacturing jobs

Canadian manufacturing firm Eclipse Automation Inc. is expanding its operations to Mecklenburg County, bringing 50 new jobs in the next three years, Gov. Pat McCrory's office said Monday.  Eclipse supplies custom automated manufacturing equipment to help companies build efficient assembly and testing operations. The firm's new facility will be located in Whitehall Technology Park in southwest Charlotte.

The company, based in Ontario, Canada, will be offering salaries averaging more than $75,000, officials said. Openings for several engineering posts to be stationed in the Charlotte office are already being advertised on the company's website.

"I'd like to thank Eclipse for creating valuable manufacturing jobs here in North Carolina," McCrory said. "Manufacturing has been a big part of our state's past and will continue to be a large part of our state's future."

Friday, January 24, 2014

Boeing adding up to 1,000 workers in North Charleston

Boeing is adding as many as 1,000 contract workers at its North Charleston, S.C., plant to help overcome production problems with its 787 Dreamliner jets, the Wall Street Journal is reporting. The company is hiring more than 300 inspectors and mechanics at the factory, the paper reports, citing three sources familiar with the situation. The number of workers hired could rise to as much as 1,000.

The news comes amidst production struggles at the South Carolina plant, which the Journal says the aerospace giant hopes can assemble a third of the 120 Dreamliners it plans to produce this year. Last year, the North Charleston plant assembled 14 of 65 total Dreamliners delivered, the paper said.

Questions of productivity problems came into play recently as Boeing took bids from Charlotte and other cities around the country hoping to house Boeing's new 777X jet manufacturing plant. Union officials in Boeing's Seattle-area manufacturing stronghold pointed to the production issues in South Carolina as a key reason why the next plant should stay in Washington state.

Charlotte had offered to assemble 405 acres inside and adjacent to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, but Boeing officials turned the city's proposal down. After machinists in Boeing's Seattle-area manufacturing stronghold agreed to contract concessions, company officials said early this month that they will build the 777X in Washington state.

The gospel according to Johnny Harris

Over at the Westin Hotel, about 400 real estate developers, investors, lenders, politicians and urban planners are holding a two-day conference to talk about trends driving real estate investment across the Carolinas. It's sponsored by the Charlotte, Triangle-area and South Carolina chapters of the Urban Land Institute, a national nonprofit think tank devoted to promoting responsible land usage and strong communities.

Some of the biggest names in Carolinas real estate development are on hand. Among them yesterday was one of Charlotte's best-known real estate developers, Johnny Harris, a driving force behind the development of the SouthPark Mall area. He spoke on a panel with other prominent developers about real estate opportunities and challenges in today's market.

He had a few thoughts. Among them:

  • Environmentally sensitive buildings are in. LEED-certified buildings are increasingly the industry standard, not an option. "The tree huggers are now running the companies," he said.
  • The younger generation of workers want office buildings with open spaces, lots of natural light. And they're not interested in driving way out to far-flung, car-dependent office buildings to work, he told the crowd. They want walkable, transit-friendly communities. "Live-work-play is an overused term," he said, "but that's absolutely what people want to do."
  • Fracking's a big deal. "When we talk about the changes going forward ... the most important thing in my lifetime besides the computer is the development of how to frack and how to bring natural gas out of the ground. I'm sorry for those of you who have environmental concerns about it, but it's like the electric light, the electric current. When (electricity) first started coming out it was dangerous because they didn't know how to use it. But fracking is going to create an affordable power source for this country for the next 50 to 70 years. No other country in the world is going to have what we have. We may be able ... to catch up because we can keep the cost of our utilities in line."
  • Politics can be a pain. He got a big round of applause and some laughs after the following extended commentary: "The single most important thing that could happen in the Carolinas now that you've got the airport working and you've got what's going on near the airport -- and I'll tell you how politics plays a role -- you could connect the three major universities in this state -- State, Duke and Chapel Hill -- with light rail. You could do that and connect the single biggest asset we have in this state, which is the minds of the people who go to those schools. And you could tie those three urban areas together. And yet you have county commissions that say they will support building a light rail line in a time period, and you'll have a city council that says that's a waste of money we're not going to do that. I could tell you every reason in the world why it's better to have buses, but people won't ride buses and that's not the future. So think about how important it is. The people you vote for need to spend time and understand that the political leadership you vote for can screw up everything." 
When he referred to the "airport working," I wasn't sure if he meant the seeming settlement of the long-running dispute over control of Charlotte-Douglas International, or if he meant the US Airways merger with American. Maybe he meant both. I didn't get a chance to ask him for clarification afterward. When he referred to what's going on near the airport, one assumes he meant the $92 million intermodal shipping yard and the additional development it's spawning nearby.

He packed so much commentary into this last nugget that one attendee told me later that they needed "a stiff drink" to try to digest it all!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

New N.C. jobs plan headed to McCrory's desk

At a Charlotte Chamber luncheon, the head of the N.C. Economic Development Board said the panel will present a new economic development roadmap for the state to Gov. Pat McCrory on Friday. Board Chairman John Lassiter told the chamber's Metro Chapter Wednesday that the document will provide a roadmap for the new privatized economic development agency the state is creating. Lassiter didn't detail the particulars of the plan, but said in general it will cover a range of issues the state confronts in trying to grow more industry and jobs.

For one thing, he said the board studied areas where the state could better capitalize on areas where it already shows some strength. For instance, he said, the state is one of the nation's leading producers of plastics, but has a dearth of related chemical companies. It is among the largest sweet potato growers, but has few processing plants, he said.

"We think we've got a roadmap to recovery," he said.

The new plan will guide the nonprofit Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, which sometime this year is expected to assume the N.C. Department of Commerce's job of marketing the state to companies and recruiting new jobs and industry. Earlier this month, Triangle-area business executive Dick Lindenmuth was appointed to lead the new agency.

"A lot of things have to take place over the next six months, but I think we'll be totally operational by about June or July," he told reporters before his speech.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Is a 'Ballantyne West' coming near Charlotte airport?

At a breakfast Tuesday morning, some of the city's most powerful business and political leaders sought new ways to give Charlotte a better competitive edge on the global economic stage. Mayor Patrick Cannon, Mecklenburg commissioners' chair Trevor Fuller and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison all called for leaders to rally behind that goal.

It's part of an ongoing effort in which Central Piedmont Community College President Tony Zeiss and others are trying to pull together a cohesive vision for what the Charlotte region needs to do to stay ahead in the global competition for jobs and prosperity.

They gathered at Bank of America Corporate Center and talked about various paths to achieving that, but all centered on improving Charlotte's ability to make products, create products and move products. In one of the more interesting items that came up, Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee said the city's aiming to use redevelopment opportunities around Charlotte-Douglas International Airport to create the region's next big "edge city."

Around here, that phrase immediately makes you think of Ballantyne, arguably a prototypical edge city.  Some 5,000 acres of undeveloped land sits across Interstate 485 from the airport, and some of the city's biggest developers already hold big chunks of it. Carlee said the city is putting together an interdepartmental effort to update its 1997 strategic plan for the airport area. Officials have visions of the area west of 485, now mostly just woods, becoming an "edge city" development zone.

"The 1997 strategic plan called for a new edge city. We now are beginning to have the infrastructure and the momentum in place ...  to actually realize that edge city," Carlee said. "We're pulling together with the airport, infrastructure, planning, public safety, all of the agencies, to look at what does it take to really make this happen, partnering together with the community and other stakeholders?" It will also entail hiring an economic development expert "to lead the effort to exploit this opportunity that we've created," Carlee said.

That western stretch of 485 near the airport has historically been one of the metropolitan area's sleepiest sectors. Sounds like that's about to change.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

S.C. boasts more millionaires per capita than N.C.

Hold on to your tarred heels, folks. There's a new study out that says South Carolina has more millionaires per capita than North Carolina. That's right. The state that even suffers mobile home jokes from its own representative to the Miss America pageant, ranks 43rd in a new study by Phoenix Global Wealth Monitor, a service that tracks affluent households.

The Palmetto state has 76,831 households with $1 million or more in investable assets, according to the study, which is 4.2 percent of total households.

North Carolina has 158,447 millionaire households, or 4.1 percent. That ranks us 44th.

Right below South Carolina. Anybody got a problem with that?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Charlotte ranked No. 5 best city for job-seekers

Among the the 100 largest U.S. cities, Charlotte ranks fifth-best for job-seekers, according to consumer finance website The website studied data on unemployment rates, population growth and cost of living to come up with its ranking.

Austin, Texas, came in first, followed by Washington, D.C., Fort Worth, Texas, Denver and then Charlotte. The analysis credited Charlotte with having a diverse economy, including big banks such as Bank of America and Wells Fargo, as well as major manufacturing employers. The Charlotte area's population grew by 5.6 percent from 2010 to 2012, the analysis found, and its monthly homeowner costs and median income compared favorably to the other top 5 cities. The Raleigh area came in sixth, with the study taking note of its robust research and development sector.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Builder named for Chinese textile plant in Lancaster

That new Chinese yarn manufacturing plant heading to Lancaster County, S.C., has a design-build firm to take it from concept to finished product. Moss & Associates of Greenville, S.C., says it has been picked to design and build the new Keer Group textile factory planned for Indian Land, just across the state line from the Ballantyne area. Groundbreaking on the $200 million-plus project is expected to occur next month.

Moss says this marks its second Chinese-owned manufacturing plant. The firm is currently building a plant for the Chinese plastic film company Uniscite Inc. near Greenville. The return of textile jobs from Asia and other parts of the globe is becoming a trend to watch.

"Speed-to-market is critical to the Keer Group, and our team of design-build professionals will work to deliver their project on schedule and under budget," said Don Warren, exective vice president for Moss' Carolinas division. "An important focus for our division is to continue to develop our expertise in serving Chinese manufacturing companies that are coming to the Carolinas."

Study: Charlotte posts 27th best-performing economy

A new study by the Milken Institute suggests Charlotte still has work to do when it comes to economic performance. The study lists the Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill, S.C., metropolitan area as having the 27th best-performing economy among large U.S. cities. And that's actually an improvement over the previous year, when Charlotte ranked 35th out of 200 cities.

The study measured categories such as jobs, wages, salary and technology output. Employment growth was weighted most heavily, according to this methodology explainer. Tech-heavy cities seemed to do well, with Austin, Tx., heading the list. The Raleigh-Cary area came in at No. 13, while Charleston-North Charleston-Summerville, S.C., boasts the highest ranking for any city in the Carolinas, coming in at No. 11.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Is Ballantyne getting a new 11-story office building?

Could Ballantyne Corporate Park be on the cusp of another expansion?

Ray Eschert, founder of the Ballantyne Breakfast Club, sent out an email Thursday afternoon saying that at the club's Jan. 11 meeting, Bissell Cos. vice president Barry Fabyan will "discuss the latest growth coming to Ballantyne including the announcement of a new 11-story office building."

Eschert, whose deep community ties earned him the nickname "mayor of Ballantyne," told me in a phone conversation that Bissell made a "tentative announcement" of its plans  more than a month ago during a meeting of the Charlotte Chamber's Ballantyne chapter. Eschert said his understanding is that the new building will go near where the Aloft Hotel sits on Ballantyne Corporate Place.

When asked about Eschert's email, Bissell spokeswoman Christina Thigpen responded with an email of her own. "We are always thinking about where the next building will go," she wrote. "Barry will discuss Ballantyne's growth and potential building locations; however, we will not be making an official announcement."

Given Bissell's recent success building office towers without an anchor tenant lined up, it would hardly be surprising if they were doing so once again. The company went right on building speculative towers during the downturn, when other developers retrenched. Ballantyne Corporate Park last year won the U.S. retail headquarters of insurance giant MetLife in part because it had two 10-story buildings available to accommodate the company's 1,300-plus employees.