Point of View

NC: From a beacon for businesses to a backwater

July 30, 2013 

Do you still like calling North Carolina home? As a freelance business writer, I spend my days in a steady stream of conference calls with senior executives all around the world. These calls often involve people I’ve never met, so we usually spend the first few minutes getting acquainted. Until recently, my participation was easy and positive. I’d report that I work from home in Chapel Hill, and envy would blossom from every corner of the earth.

“North Carolina,” an Australian client said a few years ago. “Are you a Duke fan or a Carolina fan?” One client from Toronto always exclaimed about the beauty of the Outer Banks. Executives in England and Belgium have even asked whether they could come for a visit, eager to see the sights, play golf or spend a weekend in the mountains. These clients have included business consultants, chief financial officers, health care executives, government officials, military leaders, inventors, journalists and more.

Over the past few months, these patterns of client enthusiasm have all but disappeared. Instead of asking about basketball or barbecue, questions have become more pointed and more critical.

“What is going on down there?” my client from Toronto asked a couple of weeks ago. Another, whose daughter had been thinking of attending college in North Carolina, wanted to know what life might be like in that college town. “Will students really be able to carry loaded guns into bars?” she asked.

The answers to my clients’ questions these days don’t paint a pretty picture. Among all 50 states, North Carolina ranks next to last in teacher pay. Soon we’ll be rock bottom. We recently passed an amendment to our state constitution that enshrines discrimination against gays into our legal system. Our election laws are the most extreme in the nation in restricting voting access. Our legislature has taken authority from local governments for airport management, annexation, broadband, water systems and zoning. Our gerrymandered legislative districts rival the worst in the country in terms of racial discrimination and partisan extremism.

For many executives I talk with, the questions behind their questions are not philosophical or theoretical. They want to know what might happen if they were to live and work in North Carolina. They want to know if changes in public education will erode the quality of our workforce. They want to know what barriers our policies may create when it comes to recruiting from the pool of global talent. Will women want to relocate here? How about gay workers? How about young families? What kinds of schools can employees expect their children to attend?

For nearly 15 years in my work as a freelance writer, I never encountered questions like these. Until a few months ago, people all around the world knew North Carolina as a beacon of forward-thinking, not just in the South, but in the entire United States. Until a few months ago, the most challenging question I had to answer was about college basketball.

James Protzman is the owner of BlueNC.com.

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