DURHAM – Sure, it’s great to recruit the next “big fish” company to North Carolina. But in the end, the key to securing the state’s economic growth could depend more on making sure that existing companies are happy.

“Most of the statistics that you read [show] that the vast majority of job growth will come from the companies that are already in location, versus jobs that will be recruited outside the area,” said Christopher Chung, chief executive officer of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina.

“I have no reason to doubt those.”

Not that there isn’t plenty of interest in N.C. from firms outside the state.

“We’re starting off 2019 with more than 200 active recruitment and expansion projects of all sizes and industries in the pipeline,” he told WRAL TechWire in an interview.

“Collectively, these deals represent the potential for tens of thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in new investment, but we know each individual deal would be impactful to whichever community it selects.”

But keeping existing companies happy was one of the underlying messages that came out of a panel discussion at the 17th Annual Economic Forecast Forum on Friday.

NC’s 2019 economic project pipeline is packed with 200+ potential projects

More than 1,000 leaders in business, government, education and noprofits packed into the Sheraton Imperial Hotel and Convention Center for the event, hosted by the NC Chamber and the North Carolina Bankers Association.

In the wake of Amazon and Apple’s rejection of the Triangle, one of the central topics was analyzing what the state is doing to ensure that other “big fish” like Red Hat – which is being acquired by IBM – and LabCrop remain here for the long haul.

“From an economic standpoint, yes, it’s great to recruit the big buffalo, the big fish, the big whale, whatever you want to call it. But no one wants to do that at the expense of all the other companies who are here today,” Chung said.

“Make no mistake, right now we’re in a tight labor market, so there’s certainly existing employers in the room who see us recruiting yet another company, and you think, ‘my Gosh, this company is getting incentives and now they’re going to be stealing my workforce and making it harder for me to do business. Those are all legitimate arguments. It’s not going to stop us from getting up every day to recruit the next company. But we are always mindful of doing what we can to help existing companies.”

For Chung, providing incentives – both to existing and new companies – is paramount.

“As long as you make a certain amount of jobs and investments, incentives are available to everyone. I think that is sometimes a misunderstanding,” said Chung.

Growth begets growth

For Nelle Hotchkiss, growing existing companies is a way to spur growth.

“It’s the backbone for us,” said the senior vice president of Association & COO at North Carolina Electric Cooperatives.

“It’s all of our responsibility to do check-ins with our larger customer base. We want to make sure that we are working with them to provide solutions for their business processes to make them more efficient.”

In many cases, that may mean that business use a little less of her company’s product. But that’s a risk worth taking.

“If they expand, we obviously benefit from that,” she said.

Others like Dr. Randy Woodson, chancellor at North Carolina State University, said it’s also important to focus on quality of life.

“For us, we’re trying to add to the ecosystem by creating jobs,” he said. “There have been some big companies that spun out of NC State – SAS being the biggest, Cree. And we spun 20 out last year.To keep these companies here, we have to have an innovative economy, a place people want to live and raise their family. That means an education system that is valued and valuable.”

Smart growth

Another point: Growth must include both urban and rural areas.

“Growth is good, ultimately I see that as one of our biggest selling points,” said Chung. “But are we seeing enough of that growth spill over into more rural areas? And what are the policies and tools letting us see more of that happening? That’s one of the biggest policy challenges. I don’t have an answer. It’s not an easy problem to solve.

“For us, it’s really about making sure that whatever we’re doing on the state, it’s a strategy that allows both urban and rural areas to compete effectively.