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Our Opinion: High-stakes poker at the speed of sound

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Boom's updated Supersonic Overture design

Boom’s updated design for its supersonic Overture airliner.

It was North Carolina by a nose.

As in the sleek, needle-nosed jet that the upstart company, Boom Supersonic, plans to manufacture in the Triad.

Based on documents obtained by The (Raleigh) News & Observer, North Carolina’s duel with Jacksonville, Fla., to lure the company here, state officials at one point thought they were about to lose.

In fact, for months state officials saw Boom slipping through their grasp, so they upped the ante with more economic enticements to “keep us in the game.”

This, according to 1,383 pages of state Department of Commerce documents.

The documents tell a tale of suspense and desperation, especially when Boom “went silent” last summer, leaving state officials to wonder what was going on.

They also tell a story of resilience and determination.

Even when the advantage seemed to shift to Florida, the governor’s office, the Department of Commerce and the legislature would not give up.

So, when Boom seemed to lead toward Jacksonville, they added another $56 million to their offer to build two hangars for Boom. The state originally had proposed $90 million in payroll tax breaks and $50 million for site work.

Props to a Republican-controlled legislature and a Democratic governor for working well together to keep the Triad’s hopes alive.

State Senate leader Phil Berger of Eden — traditionally a burr in Democrats’ saddle — backed the additional appropriation and the money was added to the bill that Gov. Roy Cooper eventually signed into law.

Whether the fatter incentives package sealed the deal is not clear. But Boom’s talks with Florida did cool off and then heat up again with North Carolina.

The story ended well for the Triad, where Boom plans to hire 1,761 people and invest $500 million by the end of this decade on a site at Piedmont Triad International Airport.

But if it seems to have taken a game of bets and bluffs and nerves to get there ... well, that’s because it did.

“It’s a lot like poker,” Dale Ketcham, an economic development spokesman for Florida, told The News & Observer. “You don’t really know what the other state is holding in his hand.”

But even when you’re the winner, it’s hard not to wish for a day when we could stop having to play high-stakes Texas Hold ‘em for new jobs and industry.

We know. It’s the way of the world today, but it usually involves lavish payments to billion-dollar companies (as if Apple, for instance, really needs taxpayer assistance).

Critics say companies ask for incentives because they know we’ll pay them. They say incentives all too often benefit parts of the state that already are prospering. They also argue that incentives rarely tip the scale one way or the other.

In fact, in 2021, the Michigan-based Center for Economic Accountability named an $846 million incentives package for an Apple campus in the Triangle “The Worst Economic Development Deal of the Year” because it “gave a big company a giant pile of money to do what that company was already going to do anyway.”

We’ve expressed our own skepticism in the past — that ideally states and cities should make the case for their schools, their infrastructure, their quality of life and their workforce and let the chips fall where they may.

But it’s not an ideal world.

Even an expert on corporate taxes and incentives policy says North Carolina probably can’t afford to compete for industry without economic sweeteners.

“There will probably be an inflection point where North Carolina doesn’t need to offer incentives,” N.C. State professor Nathan Goldman told the The News & Observer, “but I think it’s quite a ways before we hit that.”

One thing is for sure, though. The $15 million incentive package recently passed by the General Assembly to keep the ACC headquarters in North Carolina, but possibly move it from Greensboro to Charlotte (or another Florida-based opponent, Orlando) is just plain wrong.

The state should not subsidize competition between its own cities with tax incentives, which is what would happen if the ACC moves to Charlotte.

As for why the Triad won and Florida lost, the only people who know for sure — the folks at Boom — wouldn’t really say.

A spokeswoman did list our skilled workforce, strong colleges and universities, and proximity to the Atlantic Ocean for test flights as factors.

Otherwise, she kept her cards close to her vest, mentioning neither Florida … nor incentives.

But like the game or not, North Carolina officials played it to win ... by working as a team.

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