ON THE LEVEL: Dave Simpson of Carolinas AGC lobbies in the lobby

By: Tony Brown, Staff Writer//August 4, 2014//

ON THE LEVEL: Dave Simpson of Carolinas AGC lobbies in the lobby

By: Tony Brown, Staff Writer//August 4, 2014//

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Photo by Tony Brown
Photo by Tony Brown

CHARLOTTE – Dave Simpson gives good quote.

That’s because before he became a Raleigh-based lobbyist for the Carolinas Association of General Contractors, he got good quote.

He was, in other words, a reporter. But he wised up relatively early and switched sides, and has been with the CAGC for going on 25 years. His job brought him to uptown Charlotte last week and over the weekend for the 2014 CAGC Divisions’ Conference and Construction Industry Summit.

Now 60, Simpson graduated from The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., and “wanted to be just like Pat Conroy,” Simpon said, referencing the 1967 Citadel alum who went on to write “The Prince of Tides” and “The Great Santini.”

He earned his master’s in 1977 from one of the best journalism schools in the country, the University of Missouri, where he won a scholarship that sent him off to London for two years.

His daily newspaper career took him to his hometown paper, The Charleston Post and Courier, and then to the N.C. capital city, where he worked for The Raleigh Times until the paper folded in 1989, and then went to News & Observer for a year.

On the Level met with Simpson for about 25 minutes in the lobby of the Charlotte Marriott City Center, just off the Square. He warned us he would be in a bit of rush to get up to Lake Norman for an appointment. When we got there, he confessed it was an appointment to go water-skiing.

But, like we said, he gives good quote, and he packed a boatful of them into a brief interview. Among other things, we learned that Simpson is married to an often-honored teacher, Denise Simpson. “who is a local celebrity in Raleigh.”

They have three grown children, Ben, 30, an attorney; Maggie, 29, a social worker “who wants to save the world – we need more people like her”; and Emily, 24, a women’s apparel designer “who is right now setting New York City on fire.”

We also heard about the biggest celebrity in the family, Simpson’s mother, Lo Lo.

But let’s listen to the construction industry-lobbying stuff first.

I see a lot of people with little badges on around here; what exactly is going on here? Besides water-skiing, I mean? Ha. We have about 350 people for our summer divisions-slash-summer meeting. Our association, the Carolinas AGC – it should be Carolinas AGC on first reference, followed by Carolinas Association of General Contractors – represents 1,500 companies in the commercial construction industry: general contractors, highway, utility contractors, specialty contractors, suppliers, vendors – everybody in non-one-and-two-family construction. We’re here doing specialty-area meetings, breakout groups, information sessions.

This is Day 1 of the confab. How’s it going? It’s amazing meeting here. We’re usually on the coast or in the mountains. But we’re trying something a little different, and doing it in an urban setting is really cool. I jog every morning, and jogging past all the new restaurants and buildings – the new ballpark is amazing! There’s a game tonight with the Durham Bulls I’d really like to see.

Sounds like a grueling schedule. Ha.

What has the AGC been able to accomplish during the short session of the N.C. General Assembly? We’ve had an excellent session on many issues. On Oct. 1, 2014, one (piece of legislation) will move North Carolina from the weakest state to perhaps the strongest on underground utilities safety. A utilities construction worker in Statesville died when he hit underground high-voltage cables when they were supposed to be quite a way away. He was digging under a rural road. House Bill 476 completely rewrites the underground utilities damage prevention statute, requires participation in the 8-1-1 program, requires more safety regulations and training, and it puts in an objective appellate process if there’s a dispute about who’s at fault.

That’s quite. . . Here’s your quote on that: “It’s one of the best pieces of legislation the Carolinas AGC has ever been involved with because it will save lives, minimize injuries and protect underground utility lines.”

What else noteworthy has the legislature done? Another thing that we’re happy about is House Bill 1043, which will create a blue-ribbon panel to look at all public building needs – for state agencies, the 16-campus UNC system, the community colleges, local school buildings and the utilities needs of local governments – through 2025. The panel will make recommendations on the multibillion-dollar need for building and utility construction.

Why is that so important? There is a $21 billion inventory of state buildings, and it costs 40 percent (of a building’s value) to maintain buildings that are poorly maintained. The cost of doing nothing is astronomical. There’s a quote by Will Rodgers that we’ve used, and you had better check this, but I think it is: “If you find yourself in a hole, quit digging.” The needs out there are over $4 billion in repair and long-term maintenance. It’s not sexy to replace chillers and boilers and HVAC systems, and putting on roofs.

Not sexy but necessary? When you buy a $100,000 house, if you’re smart you know to set aside $3,000 to $5,000 a year for maintenance issues. We’re in a crisis situation in the state’s dilapidated structures. And the same thing can be said for local government utilities and the same thing in the (N.C. Department of Transportation).

There was also a bill authorizing buildings on some UNC campuses, right? That’s House Bill 1182, which permits the financing of $376 million in construction projects in the 16-campus UNC system. These are what we call “self-liquidating” projects – buildings and renovations that pay for themselves. The bill authorizes financing to build them without appropriations from the general fund – dorms and university recreation centers that are paid for out of student fees.

Speaking of education, the CAGC has some vocational educational initiatives. There’s a need for skilled craftspeople in the trades. Absolutely. We promote the public schools’ vocational education program. Graduation rates for N.C. public schools are 80.4 percent. When students are in a career technical education program, the rate skyrockets to 93 percent.

You’re pretty good at this interview thing. Talk about being on my side of the table back in the day. My best interview was with Walter Cronkite.

Tell. This is back around 1978 and Walter Cronkite was sailing down the Intracoastal Waterway and was stopping over in Charleston to do some TV interviews. I was a cops reporter for the Post and Courier, and said, “If you give me a day, I’ll come back with a great interview.” So I went out to where he was docked and became best friends with the skipper of his boat. He kept telling me to come back, come back, and if Walter said he would give me 10 minutes, I should take the 10 minutes and leave it at that. Well, I came back about five times, and I was standing on the dock talking to a deck hand, and I was about three feet below ground level. The deck hand said, “Turn around; The Man is behind you.” I turned around and my eyes were at about belt level, and I was looking at a belt buckle in the shape of the CBS Eye! I was looking at the belt buckle of Walter Cronkite! He gave me 10 minutes. And at the end of 10 minutes, I took 10 minutes more. At the end of that 10 minutes, I took another 10 minutes. After 28 minutes, he said, “Get off of my boat.”

Ha. Are you going to put all that in?

Yup. That’s great. Here’s another favorite: When I was in London, I went to East Berlin, before the Berlin Wall fell, and I was talking to a guard who told me that the people in East Germany were actually quite happy. And then I looked over and saw some other guards under the linden trees – I think that’s L-I-N-D-E-N, but you might want to check – and there was a group of guards with submachine – well, I think maybe you should say automatic rifles. That image, that juxtaposition, just captured it for me.

I can understand getting out of journalism, but why lobbying? I got into this as a lobbyist because a guy I knew said I could do what I do, but I would get to write about things that I am making happen. Instead of being an observer and critic, I would be involved in making things happen. There’s really not that much difference in terms of the skills, but there is a different agenda. But I still do what we used to say at the News & Observer: “Get it out, get it out first, and get it out right.”

Is there anything you’d like to say to our readers? Yes, this would be great if you could put this in: One of my passions is working to make treating and finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease a priority. If you want to learn about this disease, go to wral.com, the website of the television station in Raleigh, and search for “Lo Lo.”

I know someone named Lolo here in Charlotte, a recovering reporter. Lo Lo is my mom, Lois Shoolbred, and WRAL has been following her life over the past four or so years. They’ve taken their reports and edited them together into a 30-minute documentary that aired in 2011, and they’ve continued to follow her. I think the most recent report was in May. My mother is amazing. She was an on-air personality on a TV station in Charleston and then was a media company producer who worked with people like Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, Willie Nelson and Tony Bennett.

And you made this coverage happen? I went to a good friend and colleague at RAL, Cullen Browder, and told him I wanted people to know about how insidious and destructive this disease is. There is no better way to educate people than to show people, so I have given them unfettered access to my mother for four years. We need to educate people on the destruction and challenges and hell that this disease spawns – for its victims, for its victims’ family and friends, for everybody. If you can put all of that in, that would be awesome.

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