NC Budget and Tax Center

With the sounds of Small Business Saturday in the air, it’s a good time to take stock of how main street businesses in North Carolina have fared over the last several years. The end of the Great Recession certainly improved the prospects for small businesses, but the recovery here in North Carolina has had a decidedly big-business bent. Most small businesses have not seen the level of growth that their larger competitors have enjoyed during the recovery, a clear sign that we have not done enough to help Main Street to prosper.

Small Business Saturday Blog Post - NC Growth by Firm Size 2009-2015

As can be seen to the left, the fastest growth in employment during the recovery has occurred in larger businesses. The biggest businesses (more than 1000 employees) have expanded their collective workforce by more than 15% since 2009, the next largest set of establishments (between 500 and 1000 workers) by almost 12%. In contrast the smallest businesses in North Carolina have struggled to take advantage of the current period of prolonged economic growth.

The growth gap between larger and smaller businesses that we’ve seen in North Carolina has not happened to the same degree in many other states. Large firms have added jobs faster than smaller companies over the last six years nationwide, but the difference in North Carolina is much more pronounced. Growth for the largest US companies was twice that of the smallest, while here in North Carolina the largest companies lapped the smallest group five times.Small Business Saturday Blog Post - NC and US Growth by Firm Size 2009-2015

This imbalance is an economic problem because small businesses are the veins circulating capital through local economies. Owners with roots in a community often source more locally, spend more of their earnings nearby, pay better, and invest in their communities. All of that helps to keep money flowing around and creating jobs. None of this is to denigrate how many large companies can help communities, but when local businesses don’t prosper, growth doesn’t always translate into deeper economic health.

Recent economic results call for a different approach to supporting small businesses. Instead of continuing to focus on cutting the corporate income tax, which mostly helps big companies, we should be plowing more resources into programs that help small businesses get loans, find new customers, and retrain their workers. The General Assembly did take a few steps in the right direction this last session, like appropriating funds to The Support Center which makes loans to small companies. But, particularly compared to the tax breaks lavished on large companies over the last few years, the assistance provided to small businesses has not been up to scratch.

So when you hit the shopping trail this season, head to your local small businesses first, particularly if they pay their workers well, offer benefits, and are invested in your community. Big box stores have their place, and some are good corporate citizens, but it’s the small businesses in North Carolina that could use a boost.

NC Budget and Tax Center

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which helped to make the United States into a more diverse and economically vibrant country. At the same time however, there is a bill (HB 318) sitting on Governor McCrory’s desk that would make it harder for immigrants to integrate into local communities, make police work more difficult, and hurt North Carolina’s reputation on the global stage.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 is one of the most important pieces of legislation in our nation’s history. The Act put immigrants from all countries of origin on equal footing, ending a quota system that essentially ensured most new immigrants came from Europe. This shift in policy allowed immigrants from around the world to realize the dream of joining the American experiment, and helped to fuel the last fifty years of economic growth in our country.

Graphic for Post - Immigrant Entrepreneurs Countries of Origin

Examining immigrant business owners’ countries of birth illustrates how opening immigration up to non-European counties has strengthened our economy. As the chart shows, immigrant proprietors have come to North Carolina from all over the world.

The immigrant business community is not just broad, it is deep as well. In North Carolina, immigrants make up less than 8% of the population, but own more than 20% of the main street businesses. In many communities, both rural and urban, immigrant entrepreneurs have helped to revitalize crumbling downtowns and neighborhoods. Read More

vince whitehurst - foundation

Vincent Whitehurst (photo by Ana Pardo).

As a follow up to National #WageWeek, the Progressive Pulse is highlighting the work of small business owners who have increased the wage floor for their employees. This blog post is the third in that series, and represents an interview with business owner Vincent Whitehurst.

Whitehurst and his partner Will Alphin co-own Foundation, a craft cocktail bar in downtown Raleigh. Foundation opened more than six years ago, and offers starting wages of $3.50-$5.50/hour for tipped employees. The current minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.13/hour.

When did you make the decision to set your wage floor above minimum?

We made the decision prior to even opening. We’ve been paying above minimum wage since the day we opened, and we’ve never reconsidered it. We wanted to attract good people and have an edge up, essentially. We never thought we’d try to just pay the minimum. We made the decision based on trying to get and retain good people, and show people that we intended to do better than the competition. It was also because we were both coming from different industries [architecture] where you don’t typically pay the minimum wage. We thought “you know, we don’t want to pay the minimum wage…that’s just too low”.

What values were behind the decision?

People here make most of their money on tips, and the people here that are working full-time are making well above the minimum wage when you factor in tips. We have low turnover; we have one guy who’s been here since we opened the bar, and that speaks to our commitment to keeping our employees around. From a values standpoint, we just appreciate good people. It’s not just about the money, either—it’s also the community. The people here, they call this a family. These guys feel like this is their group. It’s who they hang out with, who they go to dinner with when they’re not working. It’s the way we manage the business. We give people a lot of freedoms here. I think employees also consider that.

How does a higher wage floor impact your business?

If you have good people working for you, and decide up front that you’re going to pay them better, then it comes back around. You end up […] with people who understand service, who make people feel good, who know how to talk to people. You’re keeping them there, so you’re training them long-term. I think a lot of places think “oh, it’s just a server, they can just serve anywhere”. Here, everybody’s committed to learning these products, and sometimes it takes a few years. It’s a long-term vision; you train somebody and over time it’s going to help the business.

This interview has been edited for length.

fulton forde - boulted bread

Fulton Forde (photo by Ana Pardo).

As a follow up to National #WageWeek, the Progressive Pulse is highlighting the work of local business leaders who are raising the wage floor for their employees. This blog post is the second in that series, and represents an interview with bakery owner Fulton Forde.

Forde and his partners Sam Kirkpatrick and Josh Bellamy own Boulted Bread, a small, 9-employee bakery in South Raleigh which opened a formal store front a year ago this week. The wage floor for Boulted Bread employees has been set at $10.50/hr since the business began.

Q: How did you make the decision to set your wage floor above the minimum?

A: We made the decision with our first hire, Meg. We talked a lot about a living wage, and it’s something I always had on my mind. Morality is a big part of the business – be it from sourcing, or process, every part – so we wanted the way we treat our employees to be in line with the products that we’re trying to sell. Coming up with a wage floor significantly over minimum was [important to] fitting the moral structure of the business.

Q: What benefits do you see as a business owner from having a higher base wage?

A: We want everyone to feel like they’re a part of the business, not just an employee. When the business benefits, we want [our employees] to benefit. So everyone who works here sees that we’re a little busier every week, and everyone’s wage is going up. We also want everyone to see that this is more than a job you have for a few months or a year. We’re here every day and we’re doing the same things. It’s simple work, but for us it’s tied to a whole lifestyle that we want and the morals of the business. Even in our first year we’ve been sure to take a couple of weeks off, and we’re moving forward with benefits in general. We want people to feel involved, receive the benefit of the [success of] the business and feel like this can be a long-term opportunity for them. We don’t have anyone who looks like they’re going to be, you know, escaping. When you start people off with that reciprocal respect, they’re willing to do more, and it’s easier to pay them more from there, because they have more responsibilities all the time. It leads to everyone representing the business well when they’re here, and when they’re not here, and ultimately greater success for everyone.

Q: How do you see your higher wage floor impacting your business in the long-run?

A: We started off having three owners, and we’re all really heavily involved. It’s all about dispersing the responsibility. That’s definitely one of our end-goals, having responsible employees who are capable of taking on some of the burden [of running the business]. There are so many people that I see really struggling, that really have a super-difficult life. Our employees are not; we’ve really taken steps to make [working here] livable. In the future, we plan to continue to increase pay, and we’re also working on some benefits like paid time off, simple IRA matching, possibly health insurance.

I think every business owner needs more free time even at their own business to create new things or research their product or service and see how they can make it better. So even if you’re addicted to work and want to be at work all the time, free time at work is really powerful, and can easily turn into more profitability if that’s what you’re after. We still work a lot, but now we have more time to really investigate things like better sourcing, better products. It wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t have employees who we trusted, who worked hard and were rewarded.

This interview has been edited for length.


Glowing computer screens, florescent lights, spreadsheets, graphs and charts. That’s how many of us spend our day. In the age of instant information, we rely on numbers and statistics and reports to paint pictures of the world that lies beyond the view of our office window. And we’ve gotten good at it. We understand wage and employment trends and we can measure equality and growth.

Despite the growing capacity to track and measure and capture data, we’re still failing to understand the whole picture. This is especially true when it comes to understanding North Carolina’s small and rural communities. The voices from these communities are often absent from the problem solving table. As a result, decisions are typically made on behalf of these communities based off of our imperfect understanding of what their needs and wants truly are.

Last week I enjoyed some time outside of the office and beyond the Triangle. I walked on a wooden suspension bridge that spans the Tar River, traced the Greenway on a map that connected the River to downtown, and heard about the efforts to revitalize the downtown and local economy through attracting private capital and investing public dollars.

I was in Rocky Mount. I was excited to see the kinds of ways that grassroots leaders, city officials and planners and business owners are reimagining their city and with it the region.

Over the past few years, Edgecombe and Nash counties have received national notoriety for their crime rates and poverty levels. And while these counties face very real difficulties, the negative stories do not represent the reality of the entire region or the recent efforts that are beginning to bear fruit. Residents and local leaders are beginning to take back the narrative of their community.

Residents of Nash and Edgecombe have launched an effort to take their name back and tell their own stories of their communities, one that moves beyond statistics and fear toward collaboration and hope. In 2013, a citizen group, called The Positive Image Action Group, was formed to combat those negative images and to tell the story of their hometown from their perspective. Earlier this month, the group launched the first phase of a campaign to take back the name of the twin counties.

“Twin Counties – Here’s to Success” is a marketing campaign designed to highlight the positive and promising stories of citizens and business in Edgecombe and Nash County. Read More