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Q&A: NCEDA Board President Randall Johnson Talks Goals, Economic Interests

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Jul 14, 2020
Randall Johnson
On July 1, the N.C. Economic Development Association elected local N.C. Biotechnology Center office leader Randall Johnson to serve as the next board president.

Johnson is the executive director and founding director of the Southeastern office of the Durham-based N.C. Biotechnology Center. He served previously as vice president of the N.C. Economic Development Association (NCEDA) board.

Johnson also held the roles of secretary-treasurer and chairman of NCEDA’s professional development committee. He joined the NCEDA’s board of directors in 2013.

In his new position as NCEDA board president, Johnson’s duties are to lead the board, its financial responsibilities and programmatic activities, and manage the board association group, which serves as the management group for the membership, he said.

Johnson is one of several regional members recently named to the board this year.

The NCEDA, a 54-year-old association, is a membership organization for economic development practitioners and their public and private allies and education partners, according to the organization.

The group also has a legislative advocacy role, in which the NCEDA works with legislators and others to make sure the economic development environment in North Carolina is strong and supports job creation across the state, Johnson said.

GWBJ: What goals would you like to accomplish during your term as president?

Randall Johnson: “Our sole focus is providing exceptional value and benefit to NCEDA’s members and partners, and that’s by offering high-quality professional development, hosting networking building gatherings, whether those are in-person or virtual, and serving as the voice for economic development and for the economic development community for their legislative efforts.

“A big part of what we’ll do this year, especially in light of the COVID situation, is to build on those successes, built on programs, that we have put into place for many years. Those include professional development, as well as some newer programs like the research committee and emerging execs program, or initiative. We’re also launching an NCEDA Foundation to benefit economic developers and our profession as a whole in new ways, and that’s including a greater presence to young professionals and rural communities. So, we’re not sitting back on our laurels and just trying to hold on to what we have, we’re being aggressive in forming new programs as well as trying to strengthen the programs we already have.”

GWBJ: How do you feel the COVID-19 crisis might change the role of the organization?

Johnson: “We have been very fortunate the past few years to see a dramatic increase in our membership and engagement of our members. So we're in a very strong position right now to continue to be able to deliver the value and the benefits that we have in the past, and to weather this storm. It is a damaging storm for many organizations, but we're in a position to do well through it.

"I'm more concerned about the economic developers at the local, regional and state level, and making sure that they continue to have the support they need to be the point of the spear for economic development activity. They need to be able to continue to go out and work with their existing businesses, to grow those businesses to the extent possible, especially as we come out of the pandemic and businesses are ready to ramp up again. We need to continue to be able to attract new businesses …  We need the economic developers to continue to be supported and funded, so they can do that work to create the jobs and keep the investment rolling in the state."

GWBJ: How do you feel your background in the life sciences and biotechnology industries will play in your new leadership role with NCEDA?

Johnson: “The N.C. Biotech Center, we’ve always focused on economic development as a key component of our work, especially in the regional offices across the state … One of our primary goals is job creation and investment, so that activity falls right in line with the NCEDA responsibilities. We are in contact and in partnership with members of NCEDA and have been for the whole time I have worked here, and that includes local economic developers, regional economic developers, the EDPNC, the N.C. Department of Commerce, and allies of all sorts, and partners of all sorts across the state.

“So, it’s a really great fit. When I have my N.C. Biotech Center hat on, I’m largely focused on life sciences, although we have a pretty broad definition of that. So, I’m just broadening that, and wearing a bigger hat, when I moved into [my] NCEDA responsibilities.”

GWBJ: As a Wilmington region representative, what can you bring to the state level to further both regional and state economic development interests?

Johnson: “We do bring our individual thoughts and needs to the state level and then as a state organization, we work to not only identify but then help to fulfill those needs across the state.

“People from different parts of the state do bring their induvial interests to the table often. But one way that benefits our efforts at the state level, especially the legislative efforts, is to hear the variety of needs from around the state, so as we form a legislative agenda, we include all those voices; we have discussions about the best way to move forward as a state and then as an organization; and then we take those priorities to the legislature to gain that support, at least have that discussion with legislators on what we think is needed in the state.”

“We have seen a lot of support for economic development tools like [state commerce’s Job Development Investment Grant (JDIG)] from all parts of the state. And that type of support from all over the state has continued to show the need at the legislature. And so with the latest extension, the legislature extended the JDIG sunset for a long period of time – nine years."

GWBJ: What is on your upcoming legislative agenda?

Johnson: "Our efforts range from large-scale incentive-focused activities, like the JDIG, to workforce development activities and needs like the community college counselor program. And this is an interesting year. It’s going to be interesting to see what our legislative agenda looks like and what the legislators are actually able to consider next year. We're not sure yet what our financial environment will look like in the state. And so, it's unclear at this point what our legislative priorities will be. We have lots of ideas for what they can be but we're not sure what they will be until later this year.”

GWBJ: Any other initiatives on NCEDA’s table?

Johnson: “One of the primary things that we are doing, which a lot of organizations are doing, is pivoting to a virtual model of offering content, especially our professional development seminars. This is a direction we wanted to go in ... anyway.”

“The other thing is … the NCEDA Foundation, which will be a new way to support and serve our members from all across our state. It will provide additional scholarships for young economic developers; it will provide scholarships and other support for economic developers in rural communities. And so it’s a new way to tap into some funding that we don’t actually have access to right now … but with the 501(c)(3), which the NCEDA Foundation is, we will be able to tap into additional pockets of funding to fulfill our mission in new and exciting ways.”
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