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Economic dynamics 


We listened with great interest as Mr. Consultant from Austin, Texas, plowed through his PowerPoint presentation at the Civic Center Marriott last week. He showed us nearly four dozen slides, each a tiny slice of information about our city and county, snapshots of our present and predictions of our future. Here are a few morsels we chewed, along with the stale rolls from the $35-per-person breakfast:

Education: We learned that Durham has lots more college-educated people than most places--35.4 percent of us have bachelor's degrees, compared to a national average of about 20 percent. But we also learned that nearly 22 percent of us don't finish high school. And while our range of SAT scores is average, our average scores are low. That means we have to help the lowest-scoring kids if we want potential new companies to think we have an educated work force, Mr. Consultant said.

Unemployment: What a shock, it's doubled since last year, leaving 4.3 percent of us without jobs. And here's the really bad news, it will get worse before it starts to get better, long about 2003. But it's all relative, Mr. Expert told us; his hometown of Austin had 23,000 layoffs to Durham's 2,500 this year.

Employment:Speaking of jobs, it seems the type of jobs open around here is another problem. While only about one in eight jobs nationwide and Trianglewide are in manufacturing, in Durham the ratio is only about one in five. And the future for factory jobs is dim, leading Mr. What's-his-name in the suit to volunteer that he's "alarmed" on our behalf.

That Pack of Devils with Tar on their Heels: Our region's three universities give us many gifts, we learned. Regionwide they spend nearly $900 million on research and development, a key economic indicator of something or other. "This is a jewel, a driver of your economic dynamics," said the earnest guy with the pointer thingy. In Durham, Duke-related activity boosts the number of service-related jobs way above the state and national averages. (But wait a minute, aren't those the jobs that don't pay so well?)

Commercial Real Estate: Forget that whole, if-you-build-it-they-will-come thing, and stick with the client-writes-check-before-ground-breaks model, Mr. Suit said. Durham's commercial space grew nearly 2 million square feet from last fall to this fall, but the vacancy rate grew right along with it. Same goes for hotel rooms: From 1997 to 2001, Durham developers created 2,200 new hotel rooms, while occupancy rates decreased steadily, and this year are down 8 percent, thanks to the events of Sept. 11. And, oh yes, downtown needs a boost, the expert reminded us.

We tried to take the Texan at face value when he said, "Economic development is not the business of the chamber of commerce, or the city or the county," though the huge banquet hall was filled with officials and staffers from (drum roll, please) the Chamber of Commerce, city and county. "It's a community responsibility," he said. "Economic development is like housework--it never ends."

If that's true, maybe Durham could give a little more attention to putting its economic house in order for ordinary citizens.

Normally, we would address this memo to the head of the Durham Office of Economic and Employment Development, but due to the, ahem, house cleaning going on following the small-business loan scandal, that position is vacant.

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