When it comes to being politically correct, city officials are a different breed. It's not that they worry about offending anyone as much as they don't want to look like they're supporting one over another. Ask about a favorite restaurant, and there's fear of it looking like a city's endorsement. If they even mention a neighborhood, it could impact voting districts. Look around for a photo opportunity and you have to consider how the city representative will be portrayed. You can learn a lot by talking to a city official. It's not much fun, but it is educational.
When I sat down to speak with Charlotte's new economic development director Bill Cronin (we met downtown, as he didn't have time to come into our office), we were joined by one of the city's communications professionals. I don't know if that's typical or if Creative Loafing's reputation precedes it. Regardless, Cronin, 49, and I talked about his job, and the challenges and advantages that come along with a non-Charlottean being hired for the role. He'll have to handle the aftermath of Chiquita announcing its departure, as much as the anticipated development of the Bojangles' Coliseum area and Eastland Mall, along with off-the-radar items such as adding a grocery store to a neighborhood. It was informative, yet formal.
"A lot of people think of ribbon-cuttings, groundbreakings, big announcements with big jobs coming — economic development is that, but it's all the work that goes into that. It's not just recruiting, but how you also take care of your existing businesses," says Cronin, who took the position Dec. 1. "It's making sure government is not an obstacle or partnering with organizations to get a buzz going when companies come here. I often compare it to a short-order cook — you have so many things going on that all need to come up at the same time."
Cronin, a native of Michigan, has worked as the economic development director in Florida (10 years), as the director of commerce in South Carolina (four years) and as a vice president of economic development in Atlanta (three years). During that time, he was Charlotte's competitor, so he's not unfamiliar with the city and all that it offers. He's also always had a hard time finding the city's weaknesses, joking that people shouldn't consider that an offer to call him to tell him what they are.
We talked about the world economy and how Charlotte isn't competing with India, per se, but with Mumbai (think city vs. country compared to city vs. city). How, when a particular area needs a grocery store, you can't just drop one in — you have to consider if the area will support it. You have to look at the benefits for both sides and how it impacts the surrounding businesses. It's the same when a major corporation is looking at Charlotte — what are the biggest things to attract someone here, or elsewhere.
My joke about an out-of-towner's biggest challenge being the struggle to navigate Charlotte's confusing street names fell on deaf ears.
I asked Cronin if he views that morning's announcement from Chiquita as an opportunity to bring in another big-name company. As soon as the word Chiquita came out of my mouth, Cronin glanced at the communications monitor seated next to him. I clarified again that I was there for a profile, not a breaking news story.
"That building is a very high-profile spot right off 277," Cronin says. "You have to look at economic development in a holistic way — the residential side and commercial side. You have to look at the corridors and the area around them. For 2015, we can't get in the way of growth. You can already see the cranes out there and we're going to get busier and need to be able to handle the growth. We have to focus on the big picture and not just individual projects, too."
My best glimpse of Cronin outside of the office was when we talked about family. As a father of a toddler and a newborn, my newfound life perspective hit the right note with Cronin when I asked what he's learned from his children that he can incorporate into his work life. (For me, it's greater patience and not sweating the small stuff.)
"My son is a strong public speaker and does a lot of student evangelism," Cronin says. "When he first started speaking in front of groups of 200 to 300 people, my first protective view as a father was 'He's going to make someone upset' or 'someone's not going to like him' or 'he'll be bullied.' After realizing he had that gift, I stopped worrying about the what ifs and started to encourage, and gave that push and support to continue to grow. He continues to speak to large groups and now, at 17, he has become an inspiration to me."