‘Are you having second thoughts?” That’s the question one of my friends from the West Coast asked me recently after hearing yet another news story surrounding HB2. Eleven years ago, my wife and I were living in Southern California and seeking a new place to call home. Before we decided to move to North Carolina, we did our homework.
We knew about the great schools, innovative economy and reasonable cost of living. But it wasn’t the research that sold us – it was something less tangible than that. Even though we didn’t have roots or a lot of familiarity with the state, from afar North Carolina felt like a welcoming, forward-thinking place.
“Of course I’m not having second thoughts,” I told my friend. We love it here. Most of the people I know – Republicans and Democrats alike – are embarrassed that North Carolina’s reputation is taking a huge hit right now. Set aside for a moment the economic damage. Pretend for a second that thousands of our residents are not being made to feel unwelcome in their own state. In addition to all of the tangible, immediate problems with HB2, we are jeopardizing something more ethereal. The North Carolina “brand” is in peril. When the brand is tarnished, it can take a long time to repair, if it can be repaired at all.
We might not like to think about our brand. When our state’s motto is “to be, rather than to seem,” talking about appearances can feel shallow. But for generations, North Carolina cultivated the notion that we were the exceptional Southern state. We attracted good people and enterprise through a combination of investments in our schools, respect of others and a disposition toward kindness and reason. Our brand helped attract a mix of people who have driven our state and our economy forward. They brought their talents, their families and their resources and now call this place home. I am proud to be one of them.
A study out of the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center says that the potential loss of federal funds in North Carolina could result in $2.4 billion in wages and 53,000 jobs. While those numbers seem staggering, they pale in comparison to the loss of brand equity HB2 is causing. We might be able to quantify job losses when organizations like PayPal and Deutsche Bank announce their plans to disinvest in North Carolina. We never will be able to calculate how much we lose when North Carolina gets crossed off the list in some corporate site selection meeting or the next great tech startup chooses to start elsewhere.
We won’t know of the untold thousands of people who wanted to come here to learn or invent or innovate until they heard about North Carolina’s intolerant ways.
Despite HB2, I’m not having second thoughts about the choice I made to come to this wonderful state. But I fear that the next generation of talent also won’t be having second thoughts – because they’re not even giving us a first thought. And that’s depressing.
Damon Circosta of Raleigh is executive director of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation.