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Citizen Servatius: Somebody Stop Him

The tale of a Charlotte entrepreneur on the run

By now, you probably know the names of the important people who fought the hardest to keep the Charlotte Hornets in Charlotte: McColl. Harris. Schwab. Thompson. Wheeler. But do you know the names of those fighting just as hard to bring other businesses here or keep them? Neither does Charlotte automotive entrepreneur John Dables. When I called him the other day, I could tell he was stoked, damn-near fired up about something. That something was New York, where he'll likely locate the headquarters and manufacturing plant for his new business, which will manufacture automotive parts for electric vehicles.

Five weeks ago, Dables had no contacts in New York. Then he got on the web and typed in "doing business" and "New York." The first website that popped up, that of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, listed Mason Almeda as the man to call. Dables called, and was almost immediately sucked into the state's business recruitment vortex, a powerful force unlike any he'd encountered in his 57 years. Dables' head is still spinning from the experience, and you can hear it in his voice as he described what happened next.

Almeda immediately hooked Dables up with Emmett Pickett, the empire zone coordinator for the East Williamsburg area in Brooklyn. What, Pickett wanted to know, would it take to bring Dables' firm to New York? Dables gave him a steep list. He'd need a manufacturing facility, labor of varied expertise and skill level, additional financing that hadn't been available from Charlotte banks and the beginnings of a customer base that would allow the production of a targeted volume of product -- for starters.

In less than a month, Pickett and a loose team of city, state and non-profit development experts met every one of those needs. They found him an ideal factory location in Rome, a city in upstate New York. They even made introductory calls for him to investment bankers to help secure financing.

Folks with NY's Industrial Technology Assistance Corporation (ITAC), a non-profit economic development company, in a team effort with the state's utilities, offered to help him set up his factory under a program that teaches incoming manufacturers 21 different ways they can set up their factories to cut their manufacturing costs and save on their electric bills. They helped him navigate the city and state's business and tax incentive programs. Reps from ITAC offered to help him with the basics of setting up the factory, including writing business, productivity standards and inventory management plans for free.

Pickett even pitched Dables' product to companies within his empire zone's service industry, and managed to line up several clients for the new company.

"He's out there hustling, trying to get business for us, and we're not even in Brooklyn yet," said an amazed Dables. But that was only the beginning.

They rearranged their schedules to meet with him. If Dables had a question, the group scrambled to answer it or find someone who could. When they couldn't find the answers, they scouted out specialized consultants he could hire to help him navigate through city and state bureaucracy. And all of this in under a month.

But there was something the Charlotte businessman didn't tell them. He's also in the process of launching two other automotive technology businesses with other partners, one of which he says he has to locate in an area where there is some automotive technology, like Michigan or Charlotte. Until this past month, the idea of taking his other business ventures up North hadn't dawned on Dables. Now things are changing.

"We'd like to stay in the Charlotte area, but I have to tell you I called New York on another project today," said Dables, who has lived here since 1996. In Charlotte, Dables has run into nothing but potholes and brick walls.

"I haven't found an aggressive effort to really develop small business here," he says. "I just don't see anyone in Charlotte reaching out."

In Charlotte, business investment and small business financing -- from half a million dollars to $3 million -- is simply not available said Dables, who has made the rounds at the big banks.

"The threshold they have is $10 million, $15 million," said Dables. "They don't even want to talk to you for less than that. I understand why. They've got that tower downtown to support."

After his whirlwind romance with New York, Dables sees Charlotte's attitude and approach toward small and mid-size business recruitment and retention as indifferent and half-baked. It was a challenge to find leads on the web when he typed in "Charlotte" and "doing business in." Still, Dables, who seems resigned to giving the city one more chance, managed to locate the name of a Charlotte economic development official on the web and schedule lunch with him.

There is frustration in his voice -- as there is in other small to mid-size business owners I've talked to lately -- when he talks about what he sees as the city's misplaced priorities, how far it once came, how far it still has to come, and how, perhaps, it is backsliding. For Dables, who lives in Ballantyne, was educated at MIT and has business partners and connections on both coasts, the problem is one of attitude and priorities, not tourist attractions, talent and resources.

"They don't get it here," said Dables. "I don't think Charlotte really understands how to grow industry. Charlotte has been increasingly lucky over the last 20 years. It hasn't suffered through a lot of economic downturns others have had. Once you go through that, you realize how hard it is to retain and attract new businesses. You know manufacturing is important. It's not that Charlotte isn't capable. I think Charlotte has frankly gotten lazy."

When compared to the passion and seamlessness of New York's recruiting efforts, in which state and city economic development agencies team up and actually work together, it's easy to see just how toothless and pointless our city and region's hollow boosterism has become. We aren't fooling Dables, or anyone else for that matter.

If we put the time and effort into new business recruitment that we've put into retaining an ailing NBA franchise, it would be amazing what our city could do -- and could have done over the last five years.

There's a line of thought I often hear that says that if you criticize the efforts this city's leaders are making to attain tourist attractions, you're against progress. I'm not against progress. I'm against the silly, pointless direction in which we've been progressing. This is not a tourist town, folks. It's very unlikely that it ever will be. What it is is a place with a strong financial and banking sector that makes a fragile home here. Perched precariously on the shoulders of that fickle financial industry are the service industries that feed off it and its employees. And that's about it. This is a two-sector town, and given that the first sector largely feeds off the second, that is no recipe for long-term growth and survival and it's certainly not the recipe those who built this place followed.

The answer is the business, specifically, more of it. When we recruit business here and keep it, all the toys we want will fall into place, with plenty of boosters and money to help pay for them. That is how Charlotte was built, and it is the only way the city will sustain itself over the long term.

"They don't need to give away the store," said Dables. "They just need to reach out."*

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