Cooper will stick with private economic recruiter

Gary D. Robertson - Associated Press

RALEIGH — Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said Tuesday he’ll work with the new private nonprofit to attract companies to North Carolina, rather than cancel its contract and risk further instability to the state’s economic brand in part in the aftermath over House Bill 2.

Cooper’s comments to reporters follow similar statements he made this week when announcing in Charlotte that he had decided on a local attorney to lead the board of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina.

“Even though it may not be the optimum choice of organization for me, I think the instability of trying to restructure would be more damaging than moving forward,” Cooper said Tuesday. “And I think we can make this work.”

Last week’s departure of John Lassiter, a close ally of previous GOP Gov. Pat McCrory, from the chairman’s post was a key prerequisite for Cooper to continue the relationship with the partnership, according to a top Cooper adviser. Barring other resignations, a majority on the board will remain appointees of McCrory or Republican legislative leaders until 2020.

Some companies hesitated or decided against moving to or expanding in North Carolina because of the March 2016 passage of House Bill 2, the state law that limited anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Legislators and Cooper agreed to a partial repeal of the so-called “bathroom bill” five weeks ago — a move the governor is helping with economic recruiting.

Cooper said he believes Commerce Secretary Tony Copeland, partnership CEO Christopher Chung, new board Chairman Frank Emory and a number of board members are all on the same page about job creation. He said he’s also talked to legislators about incentives.

“I think we’re in a good place there and I’m ready to move forward to bring jobs to this state,” he said.

The partnership began in 2014 with support from the Republican-controlled legislature and McCrory. State law called for a nonprofit to perform economic recruiting and tourism and trade development duties historically performed by the state Department of Commerce. Supporters said the partnership, which received nearly $20 million this fiscal year from the state, would be more nimble and respond quickly to potential leads and trends. State officials still make the decisions on offering taxpayer-funded incentives.

The partnership’s five-year contract runs until 2019, but Cooper can act through the department to cancel it at any time for any reason. Starting over would certainly strain Cooper’s relationship with the General Assembly and lead to confusion about economic recruiting.

“You’ve had uncertainty with incentives, you’ve had the HB2 issue, you’ve had a lot of things that make them wonder who is in charge of what’s happening,” Cooper said. Republicans have downplayed HB2’s effect on the state’s overall economy.

A change in bylaws by the board prevented the new governor from removing board members at will when he took office. That soured the relationship early on between Cooper and the board, particularly Lassiter.

Cooper senior adviser Ken Eudy mentioned the bylaw change when writing board members April 17 that Cooper’s pledge to work with the partnership was part of an “understanding” with Lassiter that he would resign so “the governor could appoint a chair who reflects his economic development priorities.”

Eudy also asked the board to defer on a contract extension for Chung until Cooper’s chairman was installed.

One McCrory supporter on the board said the partnership has contributed to job creation from which Cooper is now benefiting.

“I encourage you and this administration to continue on the road of strong economic growth by following what Gov. McCrory did, by leaving politics out of economic development and allowing this board to do its job,” furniture executive Melanie McNamara wrote Eudy in response April 18.

Gary D. Robertson

Associated Press

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