by Eric Ginsburg /Photos by Carolyn de Berry
A month into the job, Greensboro Partnership CEO Brent Christensen outlines his insights at a dinner for young professionals, but doesn’t claim to have all the answers.
The Proximity Hotel served as an unintentionally fitting backdrop for Brent Christensen as he sat in front of a room of about 40 young professionals and fielded a question about Greensboro’s greatest strengths.
Christensen, the new head of the Greensboro Partnership, a somewhat irresolute economic-development group, began forming his first impression of the city when he visited to interview for the gig, arriving at the impressive Proximity Hotel first.
It is assets like these, he said as attendees to the dinner nibbled their salads, which help Greensboro stand out.
The city’s biggest strength is its potential, he said. That is built on three components, including educational infrastructure for a trained workforce; physical infrastructure covering everything from nice and affordable homes to roadways, a lack of traffic, and venues such as the Proximity; and leadership. Greensboro already scores strongly in all three categories, Christensen said, and has potential to expand on those fronts as well.
The second part of the question — posed by an emcee from the SynerG young professionals group that is part of Action Greensboro, one of the organizations under the Greensboro Partnership’s banner — pertained to the city’s weaknesses.
“When we look in the mirror, we see every scar, if you’re like me,” Christensen said. “You are your biggest critic. Communities are no different. But it is incumbent on us not to focus on every blemish.”
He quickly picked up on the tendency as locals he met wished him a cautious “good luck” upon learning his job title. But one of Christensen’s prevailing messages of the event — a well-attended three-course meal on June 24 — was the importance of buy-in and support from everyday residents.
“You all are all economic developers,” he said, before recounting a story of how a casual conversation at a wedding by a Hattiesburg, Miss. resident led to a major economic development deal in his former home state. “This is a relationship business.”
After a break for the main course, a well-prepared cut of chicken with string beans and potatoes, Christensen returned to the front of the room to answer audience questions.
But he didn’t hesitate to throw questions back to the audience, including one about retaining young professionals that he said attendees would be more adept at answering than someone in their forties.
“My ego is not big enough to think that I have all the answers for this community,” he said, adding that it will take time and a lot of input.
In response to a question about whether a regional or adversarial approach should be taken with Winston-Salem, Christensen said large, outside companies don’t see a difference and cooperation is essential.
“We have to sell the entire region,” he said. “We have to make ourselves look bigger. And we are bigger [than Greensboro].”
Christensen also cautioned against counting too heavily on mega-sites and large corporations, a lesson taught by the unraveling of the local textile industry. Mega-site projects are like a grand slam in baseball, he said — great when they happen, but rare and unlikely to replace the smaller wins that he likened to singles, doubles and triples.
When Jeb Brooks, the young and affable CEO of the Brooks Group, asked about how to address a lack of talent for available jobs, Christensen sought Brooks’ input first. But he went on to suggest that the Greensboro Partnership should also think about recruiting employees when the workforce couldn’t be developed locally, suggesting recruitment of former Boeing employees in southern California as part of an upcoming aviation trip as a possible example.
Jamal Fox, the youngest member of Greensboro City Council, and Reggie Delahanty, the city’s small-business coordinator, were among the room full of people. Nametags indicated that other attendees worked in real estate, finance and law, among other industries.
David Ramsey, the new vice president of economic development at the Greensboro Partnership who followed Christensen from the Mississippi Development Authority, joined his boss for the event. He sat at the front, but let Christensen do the talking.
Christensen acknowledged Ramsey at the outset, describing how the Danville, Va. native was happy to return to his family. The two were a package deal, Christensen said, and are close enough to finish each other’s sentences.
“Some would almost say we’re like an old married couple,” Christensen laughed.
What drew the two men to the jobs at the Greensboro Partnership is similar to what he hopes will attract companies to open locally, he said. That includes what Christensen said is a strong business climate in the state and the affordability, potential and ease of doing business in the city.
“You would get everything that you could expect out of North Carolina, and more out of Greensboro,” he said.