Under the Dome

NC's new Economic Development Partnership leader arrives amid incentives debate

As Christopher Chung drives to his new job as North Carolina’s top economic developer, he passes a nearly complete glass office building that will soon house 1,200 MetLife employees.

The bustling construction sites represents something of a disappointment for Chung, who became director of the public-private Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina this month. He’d unsuccessfully courted the MetLife technology hub in 2013 while leading a similar agency in Missouri.

MetLife executives ultimately decided they could better attract skilled workers to Cary than to St. Louis, Chung said. Nearly two years later, Chung is working in Cary himself and cut the ribbon on the Economic Development Partnership’s new office on Thursday afternoon.

“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” he joked. “(North Carolina) is already seen as one of the top five states for doing business. We are going to get a shot to be competitive a lot more often.”

Chung will lead the state’s new approach to recruiting jobs, which combines private contributions and state government resources in a model pushed by Gov. Pat McCrory. Chung arrives as McCrory seeks funding for new incentives from the state legislature.

McCrory told business leaders earlier this month that “I do not have the tools that I need” to lure a major employer. He says the state legislature must add money to corporate incentive funds in the first weeks of the new session, which resumes Jan. 28 after a two-week break.

Chung said incentives become important once a company narrows its search. “Once they get it down to two or three locations that they believe are pretty similar across the board, then that’s when incentives really play a role and can tip the project in favor of a winning state,” he said. “Incentives make a good location stronger, they don’t compensate for a bad location.”

In the public-private partnership model, Chung will oversee the initial recruitment efforts. He’ll try to convince corporate executives that North Carolina has the workforce, quality of life and resources a company needs. He’ll talk to third-party consultants who help companies select locations to find out what other states are offering.

But he won’t decide on the incentives package. Chung and his staff will make a recommendation to the Department of Commerce – now led by Secretary John Skvarla – which will decide what tax credits and grants the company can receive.

At age 38, Chung puts a youthful face on the state’s job recruitment efforts. He jumped into the economic development industry with a college internship at the Ohio Department of Development. In 2007, he got a big opportunity: an offer to launch Missouri’s effort to move economic development to a public-private partnership – similar to the move North Carolina made seven years later.

“There was no office, no phones, no computer,” he said of his first day at the Missouri Partnership. By the time he left, the agency was credited with attracting 78 new companies.

In North Carolina, Chung’s agency will have more responsibilities than the Missouri Partnership, which left some functions in the state’s commerce department. North Carolina’s tourism, sports development and film offices have moved to the public-private partnership.

Chung jumps from a $2.5 million annual budget in Missouri to an agency that will receive $17 million a year in state funding and a requirement to raise $5.75 million privately over five years. His salary will be $225,000, with $105,000 coming from private contributions.

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