Public Service

Creating better futures through economic development

CREATE, which is housed in the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, builds new wealth in economically distressed communities through job creation, business growth, useful research and innovative policy.

A building in rocky mount.
Increasing income disparities and declining opportunities have diminished America’s middle class. CREATE is an economic development center working to tackle this challenge in communities across North Carolina by generating shared economic prosperity through a combination of research, data analytics, homegrown interventions and policy development. (Photo by Megan May/UNC Research)

Mark Little considers the best part of his job meeting people who are working to make significant impacts in their communities for future generations.

As the executive director of CREATE, Little spends his days supporting the efforts of people making change, such as a hog farmer looking to grow his business or a group of community leaders looking to strengthen their downtown district to create more jobs.

CREATE, which is housed in the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, builds new wealth in economically distressed communities through job creation, business growth, useful research and innovative policy.

“CREATE is an economic development center that envisions an economy that distributes wealth equitably and provides opportunities to prosper for all,” Little said. “That’s obviously a big endeavor with many pieces and partnerships.”

The initiative works toward this vision through multiple programs: NCGrowth, which works with businesses and communities across the Carolinas to create jobs and equitable opportunities; Homegrown Tools, a national database of economic strategies that can help small towns find new ways to utilize their assets; AICER, which helps universities, military bases and other major institutions across the country to leverage their procurement spending for targeted economic development; and the Black Communities Conference, an international convening of academics and community leaders across the African diaspora. CREATE also develops disruptive policy ideas for legislators at the national level.

The organization works primarily in North Carolina and South Carolina, though its reach is beginning to spread across the country.

This past summer, CREATE worked with a group of civic and business leaders in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, to develop a plan for the group’s Black Business Matters Initiative. The project was aimed at addressing the racial wealth gap in the area by conceptualizing and developing a Black Business Matters District in downtown Rocky Mount.

CREATE provided the group with a roadmap to its vision by assessing the city’s current landscape of Black businesses, analyzing current opportunities for businesses and creating a series of strategies for Rocky Mount to draw new businesses to its downtown district.

As part of Carolina’s Engagement Week — a weeklong celebration of public engagement with events and workshops — Little will be joined by CREATE’s partners in Rocky Mount to share their work at a panel on Thursday at 9 a.m.

Ahead of their virtual talk, Little discussed CREATE’s mission and how it led the team to Rocky Mount.

How does CREATE achieve its goals and support communities and businesses?

One is direct intervention — working on the ground in real places with real people. We help businesses that are located in economically distressed places to grow and hire more people at above-average wages. We work directly with local governments, tribal governments and other organizations in economically distressed places on projects that create more wealth, better jobs and better outcomes.

We also produce applied research and partner with faculty at UNC and other universities to support academic research. All of that work has the same goal. It’s just a different pathway. There are tools and resources that we create that people can use in different states and even different countries.

The third area is policy — working directly with policymakers at the local, state and national levels on potential policy changes that would have the same kinds of impacts as our interventions and research, radically improving peoples’ economic outcomes.

Why is Carolina and the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise the right place for a program like CREATE?

People in struggling communities across North Carolina pay taxes, taxes that end up supporting the University. The University’s mission is to support and accelerate the state in many ways. It’s not just students. Our focus is really on economic development and how to use the private sector to create more and better opportunities for people.

While UNC is always trying to identify more resources, the University has a wealth of resources. Part of our work is making sure those resources are equitably shared across the country and to ensure that people in places that don’t regularly have access to the University — and all the students, leverage and faculty that are here — can start to bridge that gap.

What led CREATE to Rocky Mount? What are some of the challenges Rocky Mount is facing as a community?

Rocky Mount sits at a crossroads similar to a number of other medium-sized cities in eastern North Carolina: Kinston, Goldsboro and Wilson. They were, in the past 50-plus years, hubs of economic activity and now are trying to figure out a new path to a vibrant economy. People have children, and they decide to leave or decide to stay, oftentimes based on what the opportunities are. So Rocky Mount is trying to figure that out.

Because it has a history of some economic vibrancy, there’s a lot of infrastructure there. Every place has something. Part of the reason we developed our website, Homegrown Tools, is to help smaller communities see what those assets are that they may not be utilizing fully. With Rocky Mount, there’s lots of physical infrastructure, but also people that are underutilized in some ways. And that’s actually related to the project that we worked on, where it’s, “How can you connect people who want to be doing more in a place with those opportunities and those physical assets and places?”

The first project we did with them was an assessment of Rocky Mount, particularly the city center, to understand what types of businesses had the best chance of success in that space. These are physical brick-and-mortar businesses. Some of the other things that we bring to the table are partnerships, so connecting this group of business owners with some private capital investors who might be interested in businesses that might be developed and helping the leaders talk through options and ways to think about what they want to do.

What role do Black businesses play in revitalizing Rocky Mount?

Broadly speaking, the interest in starting businesses is fairly the same across racial groups, but the business-success rate and the numbers of businesses that have multiple employees, that’s where you quickly see this divergence by racial group. While Rocky Mount also shows that trend, compared to many other places in North Carolina, there are more Black businesses in Rocky Mount. What that meant is that there was a community that was established that came together to start thinking about how they can support more growth. Businesses owned by people of color tend to hire more people of color. So Black business is important for employment reasons.

It’s also important for wealth. There’s a couple of different ways to think about how people are doing economically. One is their income, which is important. The other one is wealth, which in some ways is even more important. Do you own your home? Do you have other assets? Are you invested in markets? Pathways to creating that kind of wealth include business ownership and business development. When you have large chunks of the population who aren’t able to build wealth by owning businesses, then that wealth is not created, and the generational opportunities that having wealth affords are missed. That has impacted everybody in Rocky Mount.

Supporting business development where there’s not enough of it happening successfully is core to what we do.

To learn more about CREATE and the work in Rocky Mount, register for Thursday’s discussion