During a stop in Lumberton last week, Thom Tillis, the speaker of the state House and a Republican, brought some believability to the conversation about how North Carolina kicked away Project Soccer, the code name for a German tire manufacturer that considered bringing up to 1,600 jobs to this state that would have been in reach of Robeson County residents.
No, Tillis said, the state’s failure can’t be linked to politics as has been widely reported, but was instead a case of North Carolina not offering a sweet enough deal to bring Continental Tire to Brunswick County. South Carolina trumped our efforts, so gone were the jobs, their $38,000-a-year average wage, hundreds of millions worth of infrastructure, and an economic boost that would have quickly reached into the billions of dollars.
It’s not enough to say maybe next time.
This state, with an unemployment rate stuck in the double-digits, needs to do better, particularly for the Southeastern region, where the economy is always worse than it is elsewhere in North Carolina. But Continental Tire picked Sumter because our state’s lawmakers, particularly Republicans, balked at giving the company an upfront check for $45 million, a ransom that South Carolina decided to pay.
The loss of the plant is noteworthy in Robeson County not only because of the jobs it would have provided residents here, but because we have industrial sites that would have met Continental’s needs, and a local lawmaker got caught up in the misinformation on why the industry passed on Brunswick County.
State Sen. Phil Berger, a Republican who leads that chamber, poisoned the conversation when, after seeing that Continental Tire was heading south, tried to score politically by accusing Gov. Beverly Perdue of cronyism — steering the plant to an industrial site that this county’s senator, Michael Walters, and two local businessmen who have supported Perdue with donations, share ownership in.
What Berger skips is that Walters recused himself from any conversations about Continental Tire, and that Perdue had no role in picking the Brunswick site for Continental. There was an opportunity for an injection of politics that could help the GOP with future elections, so the senator took a swing.
Credit Tillis for helping to expose Berger’s political ploy.
Of more importance, at least now, is that the state prepare to do better next time. Incentives to lure industry are widely loathed; that is a rare point of agreement between the Far Right and the Far Left, a disdain for what amounts to a bribe. But cash incentives have become an essential part of recruiting industry, and those unwilling to pay often don’t get a seat at the table.
Incentives can be a shrewd investment: North Carolina’s $45 million check would have paid for itself quickly enough in taxes generated by new jobs and infrastructure. Instead, South Carolina will cash in.
Our state’s lawmakers would be wise to begin now to chart a road map on how best to proceed the next time an industry such as Continental Tire comes flirting. Because, once the dance begins, it might be too late.