Cabarrus Conversations: Concord Mayor Scott Padgett Reflects on Two Decades of Economic Development
When Scott Padgett was elected to the Concord City Council in 1995, the city’s population was 30,000; today, approximately 90,000 people call Concord home. We sat down with the retiring mayor recently to reflect on the many changes he’s seen over the last 22 years, particularly in the area of economic development. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
When it comes to economic development, there’s nothing more basic than infrastructure and transportation. One of the most important and forward-thinking decisions the Concord City Council made in 1995 was realizing our needs were not going to keep up with all the growth in the state, so we devoted 2 cents from property tax to a transportation fund. That fund still exists today and we have completed 41 transportation fund projects since its inception. We have raised and collected $36 million, but leveraged $75 million from the Department of Transportation. Today, we have $275 million in transportation projects underway. It’s inconvenient, but necessary for our future.
Exit 49 off I-85
At one time, Concord Motor Speedway was in the middle of nowhere. Once we annexed the property and put water and sewer out there, a lot of people worked together to get that exit opened. Now, we have the speedway, Great Wolf Lodge, Concord Convention Center, Rocky River Golf Club and Concord Mills, which would not have come to Concord had it not been for that exit. Developers could have easily gone to Rock Hill, but because we had infrastructure in place and because Concord owns its own electric systems, we were able to be very nimble and accommodate them. Exit 49 has been a very important part of the economic development that’s taken place here.
People were talking about needing some kind of airport since the early 1970s. The proposed location where FAA experts and others suggested is exactly where it is today. Cabarrus County owned the land and some very heroic commissioners agreed they would build an airport. However, a couple of them got voted out because of that controversial decision. The county ended up making a deal to transfer ownership of that land to the city; in exchange, the city transferred a reservoir to the county. Wise elected officials, including former Congressman Bill Hefner, proceeded with the airport project and in 1994, the city gained the support in funds from the FAA to build the airport. That’s the short version of how the airport came to be.
It’s easier to explain how this tremendous asset is working not only our city, but for the entire region and the state. Concord Regional Airport has been successful in getting financial support from the city, which allows for continuous improvements and expansions. Concord has enjoyed excellent support from our federal congressmen, senators and state legislators to make it a success.
No one ever imagined there would ever be a need for an international business park, but if they did, they knew it would have to be beside I-85. The city, county and state had a “build it and they will come” philosophy … and they did. The ability to offer electric, water and sewer made all that possible.
The things I have found that are most important to people are their faith, their family and their ability to provide for their family. If we don’t stay competitive and keep up the balance of providing jobs, we’re going to lose. We don’t want to be a bedroom community. I remember when people would leave Concord to commute to work in Charlotte. That number has since been cut way back and we’ve reversed a lot of that trend. Now, we have people commuting here from Rowan and Stanly counties and some from Charlotte. There’s no way of predicting what the jobs will be in the future and I think everyone is going to have to reinvent themselves several times to change for jobs, but I think we are resilient.
Before Philip Morris, the area was dominated by textiles. Charlotte was growing and I-85 was a conduit for the whole corridor and the backbone for development in the state. When the company announced they were looking to build an ultra-modern plant, Concord was in competition with other places. A local organization was formed to get Philip Morris to come here. It took a lot of courage for people to say it was good for the city to diversify. Part of making that possible was annexing the property to make running water and sewer available. Had it not been for the city willing to do that, Philip Morris could not have come. They were tremendously successful, contributed a lot and were a good community partner for many years.
Now, the focus is on finding a new tenant – something everyone can be proud of. The area around that corridor has everything: it’s mixed-use, close to I-85 and the Concord Regional Airport, has enough available property for places to live and work, and it has sewer, water and electricity availability. Thank goodness Concord and its leaders at that time had the foresight to bring in Philip Morris because that really encouraged other companies to look at us. It opened the doors. We were growing, the world was changing and we were able to attract other corporations and industries.
We have one of the lowest tax rates of other cities our size in North Carolina, we’ve won awards for fiscal responsibility, we’re AAA bond-rated, and we do a lot of pay-as-you go projects rather than borrowing the full amount. The city also has a reputation for being business-friendly and accommodating. We’re not going to give away the store or lay down on regulations, but we’re committed to retaining that reputation. One way we have done this is by offering incentives and grants so business owners can make improvements and expand. Their investment doesn’t have to be huge. There are grant programs for projects $1 million or less and we’re always changing the incentive policy so we can accommodate different levels.
Future Challenges, Looking Ahead
The biggest challenge for the foreseeable future will be the same one we have been dealing with for the last 10 years: How do we handle growth while also maintaining a good quality of life and high level of services for our citizens? We may be in the path of growth, but growth can’t be at the expense of something else. We have to continue trying to make development attractive and high-quality so it doesn’t detract from the quality of life here.
We don’t have a beach and we don’t have mountains, yet we were just selected by Money magazine as one of Best Places to Live 2017. It’s because of our quality of life. Young people who grow up here want to stay here and raise their families. New families are moving here because they see this as a good place to be in the future. And, if we continue to have solid leadership, I think our best days are ahead of us.