Guilford County has had many economic development successes in recent years and now the two large megasites the county has marketed both have extremely promising prospects.
For many local leaders, the current success is not just the result of the raffle – rather it is the culmination of an effort by many individuals, groups and political bodies in the region who, in 2015, decided to check their egos at the door, put aside long-standing local battles and work together to bring big business to the area.
Get to this point seven years ago – when Greensboro City Council, High Point City Council and the Guilford County Council of Commissioners met in a large county conference hall in downtown Greensboro – was no easy task. Prior to 2015, Guilford County and its two largest cities all pursued their own economic development programs. To make matters worse, High Point and Greensboro have often gone head-to-head for projects interested in this area.
However, finally, in 2015, the three political bodies and disparate economic development groups were all ready to work together to achieve great prospects. At a meeting at the end of the summer that year, the Guilford County Economic Development Alliance (GCEDA) was born.
Former Guilford County Commissioners Council chairman Hank Henning ruled the county in 2015 when this alliance was forged. Henning said he remembered how difficult it was for those supporting the alliance to put everyone on the same page and get them to agree on the details – which, like everyone knows, is where the devil lives.
Henning, who represented High Point voters as commissioner, said it took a lot of serious discussion before everyone agreed to work together. He said that so many people are responsible for the joint effort that it is difficult to name them all. He said everyone from elected leaders to leaders of various economic development groups in the region to those in the private sector like the Joseph M Bryan Foundation have played a key role. Likewise, he said, Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan and former High Point Mayor Bill Bencini were very important to the achievement. Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing, who stepped down as manager a year ago, was a big advocate and has played a major role.
Henning said coming together as one was a game-changer.
âBefore that, they were competing against each other,â Henning said of the county’s two largest cities. âBut then everyone saw that the important thing was to bring jobs to the community. It didn’t matter where a factory, facility, or office was located – what mattered was whether that area got the jobs.
Henning also noted that in 2015, many people wanted strong economic growth in the county but were frustrated with the lack of success.
âI think they realized, ‘It just doesn’t work. “” Henning said.
Yet some were reluctant to change.
âThe attitude was ‘This is how we’ve always done it,’â Henning said.
Henning said there was often even tension between elected leaders and economic development officials who presented the project to them.
In a closed-door meeting of the Guilford County Council of Commissioners, a High Point executive, after High Point was kicked from the circuit of a proposed giant project near High Point, slapped his hand on the desk and said to the head of economic development: “Did you think of consulting us on this !? Did it occur to you to conduct this by someone at High Point? “
A moment now famous for the Council of Commissioners came when an economic development official and the commissioners were behind closed doors discussing a new proposed project at Piedmont Triad International Airport (PTIA). The Charlotte Observer had a big front-page article about Boeing’s interest in PTIA for a major new operation. Even though it had been in the newspaper, the head of economic development did not want to tell the board which company it was. He kept referring to Boeing by its code name.
âWe know it’s Boeing! Finally shouted a commissioner. âIt was on the front page of the Charlotte Observer. Can we just say Boeing? “
However, the economic development official in the room refused to acknowledge that it was Boeing.
Henning said that before everyone was on the same page seven years ago, a company would come to the area and be pitched by High Point economic development officials, then return later for a second visit organized by Greensboro Economic Development officials or vice versa. .
This often meant giving the client two different sets of data and it also meant that one city would try to shine at the expense of the other.
Henning said it was really something to see all three local government governing bodies in the same room, and added that he had never seen anything like it before or since. He said it was a turning point in a remarkable transformation of economic development efforts in the county.
âBefore that, we were competing against each other,â Henning said.
He said that after this smooth convergence in mid-2015, the former chairman of High Point Economic Development Corp. Loren Hill and Greensboro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Brent Christensen have started working together.
Henning added that if Christensen were to be absent when a Greensboro project was discussed in a closed-door session of commissioners, Hill would replace him – and vice versa.
âThey would come and do the presentation even if the project was for each other’s town,â Henning said.
Henning added that Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan played a huge role in the unity effort at the time.
Vaughan said this week that she was delighted that there are currently so many great prospects for economic development in the region – in both megasites as well as elsewhere.
She also said there were other projects underway that are not yet known to the media or the general public.
The mayor of Greensboro said she believes the community’s success now dates back to 2014 and 2015, when there was a shift in the way the county and the two cities viewed economic development. The work between then and now has really paid off, she said.
Vaughan said political and business leaders have realized it is much more effective to work together.
She added that she was not sure exactly how the relationship between Greensboro and High Point had become so combative in the past – but she was very happy that the GCEDA had been formed.
âI think it made a huge difference,â the mayor said.
Vaughan said she wasn’t surprised things finally seemed to be going full steam ahead.
âI have always had faith in the work we did,â she said. “My mood has always been optimistic.”
The Mayor of Greensboro said she has always known that improvements to the area – such as the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, local greenway improvements and GCEDA – help all business leaders to more easily choose Greensboro, High Point and Guilford County. She added that since the COVID-19 pandemic is somewhat under control, big business projects are really ready to go.
Vaughan said an important joint decision of the three agencies was when each offered financial incentives to retain Fresh Market headquarters in Guilford County in 2019.
Christensen said this week he was working all weekend ahead of a major economic announcement on Monday, December 6.
Henning and Vaughan both highlighted the excellent working relationship between Christensen and Hill as the key to success. This relationship is all the more amazing given that Christensen is a die-hard Duke fan while Hill is a die-hard UNC-Chapel Hill Tarheel fan.
Like Vaughan, Christensen has said that the unity effort is paying off.
âThis county has played the long game and it is starting to pay off,â he said.
Christensen said he had previously spoken to a prospect who commented on another jurisdiction where two factions denigrate each other – each trying to win the project.
âIt really turned them away from that area,â he said.
Christensen said it’s much more appealing to prospects for an entire community to work together to convince the prospect to open a store here.