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How N.C.’s top recruiter is broadening Union County's strategy

13 July 2016

By Ken Elkins, Charlotte Business Journal

Four colorful paintings by Monroe artist Bill Colt decorate the Monroe-Union County Economic Development boardroom to denote exactly what’s on Chris Platé’s wish list.

Aerospace, agriculture, distribution and commercial businesses have an open invitation from Platé and his four-member staff to consider Union County and its 14 towns and cities as their home.

To Platé, those four oil paintings remind him of his “program of work,” in other words, what he’s charged with doing for Monroe and now all of Union County — attract investment and jobs.

Last month, the N.C. Economic Developers Association named Platé as the state’s Economic Developer of the Year. The organization was particularly impressed that Platé was able to bring in enough jobs to keep the county’s jobless rate the lowest in the Charlotte region for the last 17 years. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Platé became Monroe’s economic developer in 1999, 17 years ago.

 

On Jan. 1, 2013, Monroe and Union County hitched their economic-development hopes to the same organization. Before that, Platé and his staff sought business and industry for the city of Monroe. And Union County relied on other recruiting models, most recently the Union County Partnership for Progress.

The combined city-county staff operates from space leased from South Piedmont Community College near the Charlotte-Monroe Executive Airport. I sat down with Platé earlier this month to talk about how he does his job.

How has the combination of Monroe and Union County’s economic-development functions worked out?

When you were looking at Monroe, you were limited. You are seven miles off the interstate. It sold perfectly for manufacturing but other opportunities — like office, commercial, logistics, all those things — we weren’t really that competitive.

Now we have locations that we sell countywide, whether that’s out in Marshville or adjacent to Interstate 485 in Stallings or Indian Trail. We’ve got opportunities to sell virtually any client that would come in, particularly once the Monroe Expressway gets put in.

What are your latest annual jobs and investment numbers?

We attracted $306.5 million in investment and 717 jobs for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2015. This year has been slow for us for a number of reasons but primarily because it’s an election year.

Do you have enough open buildings and shell buildings to offer to new and expanding industry?

Our biggest thing has been lack of product. Last year with that big year, we sold everything. Trying to fill the pipeline of projects is difficult while you’re trying to develop the product.

We’re looking to other parts of the county in developing industrial parks. We want them in Waxhaw and Indian Trail specifically. We’re working with Wingate on some property as well to do some industrial or mixed-use projects.

Monroe has a spec building that hopefully will be bidding some time in late September. So we’re getting things in line.

The last spec industrial building went to Glenmark Pharmaceuticals Ltd. I think we have one marketable building around 20,000 square feet.

In the past, Monroe owned the land and developed the shell buildings. Are you going to use that same formula in the future?

We’re going to look at multiple scenarios, whichever works best for each community. There could be some method where we could provide safety nets to the developer. If the buildings didn’t sell after a certain period of time, we could look to acquiring the building — sort of a guaranteed sale.

With demand as high as it is, I don’t understand why you would not build a speculative building as a private developer. You can guarantee a pretty healthy return, I would think. There was a period six month ago, eight months ago I could have sold a 50,000-square-foot building every 10 days. A lot of those projects went other places where there was product and it wasn’t necessarily in the region.

Tell me about the new focus on retail and restaurant recruiting?

It’s only for certain communities. It will not come out of our budget. We have commitments from Monroe and Indian Trail. That’s the bulk of the money. We anticipate other partners will be Waxhaw, Stallings and Wingate.

When did you start that initiative?

We started it some time in February. We leaned on RowanWorks and Robert Van Geons. He had done some retail in the past. We were able to talk to someone who had done it to see what his experiences were like. July starts the new budget year. We’ll be doing an agreement with the participating communities and then we’ll hire someone. It’s a five-year commitment for each town. We hope to have a person on staff by this fall.

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