SC2 Challenge winners look for global opportunities
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The Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) Challenge ended with a bang on Monday when a team of educators and business professionals won the $500,000 first-place prize for their plan to enhance global business and career opportunities in Greensboro.
The UNC-Greensboro Office of Research and Economic Development entered the winning plan, but team leader Bryan Toney noted that more than two dozen people from seven institutions contributed to the project. Team members from UNCG, NC A&T State University, GTCC, Bennett College, the NC Small Business and Technology Development Center and Boundless Impact all helped formulate the proposed Global Opportunities Center.
“This is really something that we feel is important to Greensboro and could be a game changer,” Toney said. “We have a lot of assets in the area, we have a lot of history of global engagement, and I think we have an opportunity to really make a difference.”
The Global Opportunities Center seeks to unify existing academic and international commerce resources in the area in a one-stop shop for students and local businesses. Toney said the center will build on Greensboro’s history of global engagement by taking advantage of current resources. At its core, the center would connect students and local businesses looking for global trade opportunities with both the domestic resources that facilitate trade and contacts in foreign markets.
As an example Toney cited the estimated 1,000 students from Greensboro colleges that study abroad each year. Those students develop cultural knowledge and language skills, he said, and often come back eager for international career opportunities.
“Ideally, through the center we would be able to connect those assets, and people with those skill sets, with local companies who might be able to utilize that to expand their business,” Toney said.
UNCG alone has some 900 students from 80 different countries each year. Toney, who is the associate vice-chancellor for economic engagement at the school, said those students often have knowledge and connections in foreign markets and are seeking opportunities with local businesses. The Global Opportunities Center will fill a gap in the mechanisms available to connect people with the needs of local businesses.
Greensboro is behind other cities in terms of global engagement, such as the oft-cited Chattanooga, Tennessee, which dozens of civic and business leaders visited on an InterCity Exchange trip in early 2015. Other comparison cities included in the Global Opportunities Center executive summary include Greenville and Charleston, South Carolina, Richmond, Virginia, and Charlotte.
“Greensboro is better positioned than all of these cities if we better connect, leverage, and brand what we already have,” the summary states.
The challenge in Greensboro is to attract jobs to make up for the major losses in the region’s manufacturing base in the last 15 years. Greensboro is rebounding slowly, and may be better situated for growth than cities like Detroit, which was primarily an automotive-focused economy.
“Greensboro is positioned as a polyindustry economy with a diverse mix of manufacturing, education, healthcare services, and hospitality firms,” the plan’s executive summary states. “But our products must find broader markets both domestically and globally.”
Statistics from the current Greensboro economy tell the story of a city teeming with international connections. The city ranks 12th in the nation for percentage of the local economy derived from exports. There are 300 foreign-owned companies with a presence in Greensboro, 11 of which make their headquarters here. A 2014 study from the Brookings Institution reported that the Greensboro-High Point region ranks second in the nation for percentage of employees working for foreign-owned companies.
But there is also significant room for growth in terms of local companies with export potential. According to the Global Opportunities Center executive summary, some 2,100 companies in the Triad make products that could be sold overseas, but only about 6 percent are now in foreign markets.
Toney said that an existing class at UNCG serves as a type of ideal example of how the Global Opportunities Center could make a positive difference. A marketing class within the Bryan School of Business conducts a project known as “Export Odyssey”. Students in the class work with local companies to develop export markets for products, Toney said. Students identify markets and companies in those markets that could increase sales, serving as an international sales force of sorts.
The program connects academic resources with businesses, ultimately creating a win-win situation.
“The Global Opportunities Center would help us expand that. Instead of being one course … we could make it broader and look at different options to deliver that course model,” Toney said.
Moving forward, the $500,000 prize money will help the Global Opportunities Center establish itself as a nonprofit, create a board of directors, and begin to secure additional funding.
The plan outlines a need for $2 million over five years to make the plan a reality. The group plans to use a governance structure modeled after Gateway Research Park and Union Square Campus. The Global Opportunities Center will look to other colleges and universities, the City of Greensboro, area foundations and corporate sponsors to raise the additional funds.
In return, the plan envisions $1 billion in new revenue for local businesses over the next decade, 1,680 new sustainable jobs with average salaries near $45,000, and some $48 million in new state and local tax revenue.
Toney said the Global Opportunities Center would be built in a location downtown, with a small staff growing to five or six employees.
“This needs to be a very visible place.
Part of this is branding,” he said. “We want people to start thinking of Greensboro as this global place, which we are.”
In addition to the $500,000 first prize, five other projects received cash awards in the SC2 Challenge finals. In second place was a project known as GigG, submitted by local entrepreneurs Larry Cecchini, Joel Bennett and Michael Hentschel. The GigG vision is based on a public-owned gigabit speed fiber optic network, but also includes a number of tangential concepts that could grow from the infrastructure, including a new social entrepreneurship community fund. GigG had been the highest scoring proposal after the first round of the competition.
Cecchini said the team had intended to win the competition, but were happy with second place. Multiple facets of the GigG vision are moving forward, he said, with teams thinking out the implementation process to see if they can become reality.
“We believe 100 percent in GigG and are looking to build teams to go forward with the things we feel will make a positive contribution to the community,” Cecchini said. “GigG was about bringing teams together on projects that people are passionate about. People still remain passionate about components of the plan and we are looking at how we can move those forward.” !