For the first time in more than a decade, Charlotte will have a new mayor. But the men vying for the seat (soon to be vacated by Pat McCrory) aren't new to the political scene. John Lassiter and Anthony Foxx are current at-large city council members; that said, however, what makes them ready to lead the Queen City?
Creative Loafing will attempt to answer that question in a series of articles designed to find out where both candidates stand on a number of issues plaguing the city. This week, Lassiter and Foxx tackle the economy.
Creative Loafing: What type of industry do you think Charlotte needs to attract to secure its economic future?
Lassiter: We need a diverse set of industries, long-term, for our economic health and job creation. We need to rebuild our financial services industry. Grow our energy and renewable energy job base and private investment. We need to focus on biotech and other kinds of start-up companies that can create this combination of small-business investments and large-scale job growth to complement what is coming from the research campus and the doctoral programs at UNC Charlotte.
Foxx: I held a town hall meeting last September that coincided with the economic meltdown we've all experienced to seek outside opinions on this very topic. Based on that dialogue and my experience, I believe that this period in our city must be an age of hard work, innovation and collaboration. That's the only way we're going to sustain growth long-term -- and we must be thinking long-term. That means attracting industries with long-term growth opportunities, strengthening our footprint in native industries and supporting homegrown innovation more than we have in the past. We have to embrace less-mature industries as a growth strategy, and I think renewable energy should be high on the list. We've got innovation happening in our backyard. UNC Charlotte, Queens, Johnson C. Smith, Davidson and CPCC are all engaging in a way that should be leveraged. There are also private sector innovations that need to be cultivated and promoted. For example, a Charlotte company, Sencera, makes high-tech solar panels and sells them across the world. That's a big deal, which leads me to the final point: We must embrace our own entrepreneurs by supporting -- really supporting -- our small- and medium-sized business, which are the lifeblood of job growth.
What will you do as mayor to attract new industry to Charlotte?
Lassiter: I will do the kinds of things that I've done as chair of the council's economic development committee. I've been the leader in our economic development efforts in terms of growing job base in the center city and strengthening our economic health and growth along our business corridors. We've done a number of projects that brought retail back into areas that were run-down. We brought education and job activity into areas that had not seen new development in years. We have the capacity as a city to match those up with private investment looking to bring jobs and economic activity to this community.
Foxx: Charlotte is the best city in the country, and I will be a relentless advocate on its behalf. As a native Charlottean and product of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, I am a personal witness of the opportunities it can afford those who work hard. At its best, our city provides the conditions for job growth and business expansion as well as an improved quality of life for its residents. These are strong selling points for any company. As mayor, I will make it my mission to spread this message to potential companies. While the position of mayor is technically part-time, I view it as a full-time job -- one in which you have to be prepared to drop other things and get in front of a CEO or the Chamber to seize an opportunity. In addition to continuing to work within existing channels, I will also bring into city government an economic development cabinet composed of small-, medium- and large-business representatives who will help me find innovative approaches to successfully recruit job opportunities to our city.
In addition to serving as a strong advocate for our city, I will work to maximize Charlotte's appeal. This will require a competitive tax structure and working with the state of North Carolina to expand our ability to [entice] companies to locate here. It will require supportive programs for small and medium businesses. It will also require a strong commitment to a first-rate quality of life. This is why I have worked to pursue fiscally responsible policies, strengthen our small-business program, and improve Charlotte's investment in the health of its neighborhoods. As mayor, I will continue this work and strive to make all of our neighborhoods attractive places to live and work.
What do you think the biggest hurdle is for Charlotte to get people working again?
Lassiter: The biggest hurdle is a national recession that is the worst economic downturn that we've seen in 50 years. The jumpstart is an opening of the credit market and a willingness of local communities to commit the resources to draw the kinds of businesses here that can take advantage of an educated work force and relatively inexpensive rental rates for office space and can appreciate our quality of life. We have some success in that recently with the arrivals of GMAC and the opening of a new bank holding company, the expansion of Toshiba and Siemens. Those kinds of efforts are examples of working effectively with the chamber of commerce and the regional partnerships that are working aggressively to show that Charlotte is open for business.
Foxx: The biggest hurdle to getting people working again in Charlotte is pitting short-term against long-term approaches. The reality is that we need both. As employers react to the current economic crisis, we are working hard to offer transition assistance to displaced workers -- while we're working to backfill jobs by attracting related industries now and getting our workforce ready for the jobs that will come from emerging industries. It will be incredibly important for our next mayor to work with city and business leaders to prepare Charlotte for the post-crisis economy. We cannot forget our strengths -- our wonderful climate, our relatively low cost of living and our strong track record of growing industries. As mayor, I will strive to develop the infrastructure needed for Charlotte to succeed in the emerging economy.
Do you think Charlotte needs to change its image from a banking town to attract more industry?
Lassiter: The fact that we are a financial services center is still a strong drawing card for a variety of other industries. If any message we should be putting forth is that this is not just a banking town. This is a city that has eight Fortune 500 companies that are in a combination of industries that range from base manufacturing, aeronautical, to engineering to retail to home improvement. There is a wide variety of ways that our business community and the tools that are available to us as a city can strengthen a company’s decision to do business here.
Foxx: I think we allowed ourselves to be cast as a banking town, but we’re much more than that. I still see us remaining strong in that sector going forward. The question is really what we add to it. I have already mentioned other core industries that have taken root here and other emerging ones that can. The next mayor will not have as big of a wave to ride but will have to take responsibility for creating a new big wave. Unleashing the potential of Charlotteans to innovate is a critical key, and I will not be shy about supporting creative industries as well as traditional button down ones, too. I strongly believe that Charlotte will be one of the most exciting places to be in the country if we have the right leadership.