EDC Update: Checking in with Executive Director Robby Carney
When it comes to economic development, creating new “product” from conception to market is a complex and arduous process with a lifecycle that can extend for years.
Take a drive through Cabarrus County, for example, and you’ll see expansive acres of land that appear ripe for development. But what many people don’t realize is there’s a long list of behind-the-scenes hurdles to clear before a piece of land can be transformed into a site-ready product.
“There's a big difference between land and a site,” said Robby Carney, executive director of Cabarrus Economic Development. “Many things have to be in the right order – water, sewer, infrastructure, natural gas and utilities – before a company or site consultant would even be interested in it.”
As Carney enters his third year of leading the economic development agency for Cabarrus County, he’s excited for the “real work” to begin.
“It takes years to understand the ins-and-outs of a community. There has been a lot of that – continued investigation, understanding the dynamics of each community and what the communities see for themselves as far as success. This is the first year we are full-on implementing the needs we’ve identified.”
Biggest Need? More Product
Cabarrus County has a high level of private-sector investment, like Beacon Partners and The Silverman Group, but that product serves a very specific market that’s focused more towards distribution, logistics and industrial space, Carney said.
“It’s important that we continue to be strong in those categories, but I see more opportunities with advanced manufacturing, automotive and office headquarter growth. Unfortunately, we’re severely limited with what product we can offer with regard to projects like that,” he said.
“If a manufacturer came to us and said, ‘I want to invest $250 million in equipment and hire 600 people, but I want to own the building I’m in,’ we’ve got nothing to offer them,” he said. “As a community, Cabarrus County needs to focus on more diversified product development – a very important category for economic development.”
Typically, businesses that want to dig the deepest roots in a community want to own their real estate, he said. “It’s a whole different dynamic and a long-term commitment to the community – we want more of that for Cabarrus County.”
Product Development Subcommittee
To help tackle the county’s available product shortfall, EDC’s Board of Directors recently approved creation of a product development subcommittee. Members will focus solely on identifying existing properties that can be developed for industrial purposes and then working with the landowner through the process of getting those sites ready.
Profit margins for industrial developers are thin compared to residential development margins. Real estate developers are able to jump through all the necessary hoops because there’s a lot of money to be made, Carney explained, whereas on the industrial side of it, the community has to jump through all the hoops.
“There’s a lot of work, energy and due diligence required because it’s the community that has to have a site packaged up and ready to go for a manufacturer to actually want to locate here,” Carney said. “A manufacturer isn’t going to say, ‘We’ll give you two years to get that site ready before we will start operations here.’ Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that.”
A Focus on Healthy Growth, Quality Jobs
Carney envisions a committee with members who represent the entire county – engineers, architects, developers and other individuals who have distinct knowledge and expertise in development.
“They need to understand the dynamics of both industrial development and the market. At the same time, we want to have individuals invested in this community for the right reasons,” he said. “We want wealth generation for the community, not necessarily land sales. All the work we’re doing is for the very simple purpose of pushing forward the job quality of Cabarrus County.”
He added, “With this committee, I'm hoping to create a stronger EDC for the county but also a product development arm that moves us forward and is constantly redefining how our community grows and what a healthy community looks like.”
Community Report Card
A key first step in the long and slow product development process is county-wide site evaluations. The EDC team will examine sites that are over 20 acres and their proximity to I-85. They’ll also look at existing utilities and meet with landowners to talk to them about what their intentions are and if they are a candidate for industrial development.
“Ultimately, we’ll have a community report card that tells us exactly the steps Cabarrus County needs to take to get aggressive about economic development,” he said. “We're not going to see the fruits of this labor for a couple of years. Fortunately, Cabarrus County leaders are aligned in that want to be healthy and well-balanced with regard to growth.”
EDC Team in Action
Looking back on the last couple of years, Carney is proud of the work accomplished by the EDC team and the role the team has played in several big wins for the county: Amazon's new distribution center, Corning expansion, PreGel America expansion and Intertape Polymer Group’s facility expansion.
“We all work together to educate the Cabarrus County about why we do the things we do, all the things we have to offer and why we're a great place to live work and play,” Carney said. “If I was blessed by the opportunity that Cabarrus County offered me, then I was even more so by the team I got to walk into.
Every Community is a Snowflake
Although work and home life (including an infant and toddler) keep him busy, Carney relishes every chance he has to experience the county he has grown to love over the last two years. Some of his favorites? Pre-dawn CrossFit, yoga at Lotus Living Arts Studio, writing outside in downtown Concord, meals at Harrisburg Family House, exploring Midland’s Rob Wallace Park, driving through Mount Pleasant and running the loop in Kannapolis. “Each community has something really special about it and I like investing a little time in each one of them,” he said.