European Union Economic Officials Visit Clayton

Tour of Workforce Center, Novo Nordisk Part of Itinerary for Regional Stop 

A full array of international business connections was on display Thursday afternoon as economic and commercial attachés from 13 European nations filled the conference room at the Johnston County Workforce Development Center. The high-level group of Washington, DC-based officials from the European Union spent the afternoon in Clayton, touring Novo Nordisk and speaking with state and local education and community leaders about the assets that have made Johnston County a lucrative destination for international investment.

“We had a golden opportunity to showcase Johnston County to some very influential people from a part of the world that has largely accounted for our entry into the Knowledge Age economy – and I think we really made the best of it,” said Ted Godwin, chairman of the Johnston County Board of Commissioners. “European companies in Johnston County have created thousands of great jobs for our residents, and they’ve been model corporate citizens and advocates for North Carolina.”

The visit was part of two full days of events, tours and activities organized by the Research Triangle Regional Partnership (RTRP). EU officials also visited SAS Institute, the UNC Center for European Studies in Chapel Hill, Durham’s American Tobacco Campus, the Governor’s Mansion and the N.C. General Assembly.  “We wanted to give them a good idea of what makes this region click,” said Ryan Combs, executive director of RTRP, which promotes 10 counties surrounding Research Triangle Park, including Johnston. The Raleigh-based organization manages the Research Triangle Region’s global brand.

Data paints a compelling picture of how critical European business contacts are for North Carolina. “About 137,000 North Carolinians are employed because of EU investment,” Combs says. Trade with the EU accounts for another 70,000 jobs in North Carolina, and about 70 percent of current foreign direct investment (FDI) into the United States is coming from Europe. Regionally, FDI accounts for one out of every three economic development projects. “We want them to know why this is a great place to do business – one relationship at a time,” Combs said. “If they don’t know about North Carolina, they won’t invest in North Carolina. So what we’re trying to do is help them understand why they should be here.”

Tomas Baert, head of the Trade and Agriculture Section for the EU’s delegation to the United States, said the group makes regular visits to U.S. regions. Prior to its visit to the Research Triangle Region, the delegation went to Atlanta. Next up is Denver. “We make visits like these about every six months,” Baert said. Officials aim for regions that are less well-known internationally. “We try to hit parts of the country that are sort of off the beaten path – places other than Boston, New York and California.” Common misperceptions exist among Europeans and Americans about each other, but they can be easily corrected during such visits. “Americans generally underestimate how united Europe is and Europeans generally underestimate how diverse America is,” Baert told the Clayton gathering. “We’re here to discover the diversity of this great country.”

Partnerships with entities such as RTRP help extend Johnston County’s economic brand around the world effectively and affordably. Also in attendance at the event were leaders from East Carolina University, the North Carolina Railroad Company, the N.C. Biotechnology Center and Duke Energy. “We could never afford to globally promote Johnston County without our regional and statewide partners,” said Chris Johnson, director of the Johnston County Office of Economic Development. Building international relationships necessary to attracting foreign investment and cultivating lucrative trade ties also require time and patience. “But the rewards are huge,” Johnson said. “Our manufacturing community encompasses businesses from Spain, Denmark, Germany and Italy – and they are among our largest employers.”

With headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, the European Union is a unique economic and political collaboration among 28 countries that collectively covers much of the continent. Its roots date from shortly after the end of World War II as leaders ventured to build a structure for economic interdependence that would reduce the practicality of future armed conflict. Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands initially comprised the European Economic Community, which was created in 1958. With the addition of another 22 member countries, the union extended its cross-border integration to include security, environmental, judicial, health and other policy issues. In 1993, the group assumed the name European Union in order to reflect its broader mission.