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Interview with Donna Girardot,  February 25, 2009 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Donna Girardot,  February 25, 2009
February 25, 2009
Interview with Donna Girardot, Executive Officer of the Wilmington-Cape Fear Home Builders' Association and C.E.O. of BASE (Business Alliance for a Sound Economy), a coalition of associations and businesses.
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Interviewee: Girardot, Donna Interviewer: Jones, Carroll / Boyle, Erin Date of Interview: 2/25/2009 Series: SENC Notables Length 60 minutes

Jones: Today is Wednesday, February 25, 2009 and I'm Carroll Jones with Erin Boyle for the Randall Library Special Collections Oral History Project. And we're in the Helen Hagan Room at Special Collections, UNCW. Our special guest this morning is Donna Girardot, who is Executive Officer of the Wilmington Cape Fear Home Builders Association. We're going to have her talk to us about B.A.S.E. She'll tell us about that. And she is slated to become the new Chair of the United Way. Her husband also is associated with UNCW. She's a busy lady. Welcome to you, Donna, and thank you for coming.

Girardot: Thank you for having me, Carroll.

Jones: Tell us first of all a little bit about yourself, where you're from originally, how you got into this business that you're in, how you came to Wilmington, just a few little things like that so that we can become a little more familiar with your background.

Girardot: Well I've lived a lot of my life outside the United States, done a lot of traveling, and a lot of my married life outside the United States. My husband was his career, military, retired military. He was with the Corp. of Engineers, so we've lived all over the world, went to school for part of the time in France, and came to Wilmington from Hampton Roads, Virginia, from the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area. My husband was down here actually three years before I came down. I was the Executive For the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce, which is a five-city chamber, one of the largest-- ten largest chambers in the U.S.

Jones: You were Executive Officer?

Girardot: Mm-hmm, up there and loved my job, loved my job. And he got one of those offers he couldn't refuse down here at UNCW and moved down, and we did the weekend thing back and forth for about three years, which got old very quickly.

Jones: Now this was what year?

Girardot: This was-- oh I can't even remember. I came down here-- it's been about 12 years I've been down here now. He was down here three years before I was.

Jones: So he got down just before I-40 opened, right?

Girardot: I-40 was open when he moved down.

Jones: That made a big help. It's an awful drive otherwise. (laugh)

Girardot: Oh it's terrific. But we still did the back way back and forth up through the Outer Banks, back and forth to Virginia Beach, and so it was a long drive on weekends. But we did that for about three years before he finally convinced me to give up my job and move down here.

Jones: I'm going to ask you a question. You went to school outside the United States?

Girardot: Mm-hmm.

Jones: Was your father also military?

Girardot: Mm-hmm, he was.

Jones: Army?

Girardot: Army, Corp. of Engineers, as well. Couldn't get away from the corp. (laugh)

Jones: Oh man. Okay, just wanted to get that straight.

Girardot: So yeah, went to school in France my high school years, got back to the states and by that time, as you know, the schools in France are so elevated or so far ahead, usually, they didn't know what to do with me when I came back to the states.

Jones: What part of France?

Girardot: In Orleans, south of Paris.

Jones: Oh how nice.

Girardot: Mm-hmm yeah.

Jones: Did you go to a French school or a private girls' school?

Girardot: Yeah, went to French school, came back and then went to William & Mary for a little bit of time. And then my folks decided that I needed a little bit of polishing around the edges. Let's put it that way. So they sent me to Mount Vernon in Washington, D.C. and they just about gave up on me at that point in time, though I don't even think that really worked well as far as polishing around the edges. (laugh)

Jones: Really?

Girardot: I was a bit of a rebel, a bit of a rebel.

Jones: Well I thought that Mount Vernon could do wonders to almost anybody.

Girardot: Oh they could. They definitely could.

Jones: I knew some girls who went there. They came out better. (laugh) Well anyway, was France the only country you lived in?

Girardot: No, we lived in Tokyo for four years when I was I was growing up. In fact, that's where I learned how to ride. My lifelong passion is riding. I actually had a business that I later owned and operated, a business that was in riding. The man that taught me how to ride was the head of the Emperor's Imperial Cavalry.

Jones: Oh my.

Girardot: And we were the first Americans into Japan after the war. My father was on McArthur's staff. So we lived in Tokyo for four years, and then in France, and then after I was married, we lived in Benghazi, Libya. My husband knew Kaddafi when he was just a Signal Corp. Captain, before he took over the country. And then we lived in Quito, Ecuador. Both our children were born in Quito, a beautiful country. And then we lived in South Korea, where I taught for the South Korean government. They were just getting ready for the '86 Asian games and the '88 Olympics. And they didn't have a tourist industry, and I'd had a tour company that I owned and operated, and so they asked me to help their senior people put together a tourism-- build a tourism base.

Jones: Now this was in where, Seoul?

Girardot: In Seoul. And so I worked for the South Korean government for two years, helping them build a tourism industry, and was named that year as the most-- what was it, I've got a big plaque-- I was the most valuable employee in the South Korean government that year, which was a great award to get.

Jones: Now this was what year, 1980?

Girardot: It was-- I'm trying to think the year we were there, because they were getting ready for the '86 Asian games and the '88 Olympics, so we were there prior to that.

Jones: Oh okay, late '80's, all right. And your husband, all this time, he was with the Corp?

Girardot: He was with the Corp., yeah.

Jones: And your children, how did they fair, or were they just like you, they went along, they got along and it was good for them?

Girardot: It was good for them. I think it was difficult as well. They-- rather I thrived out of the moving around, I think. They're more today like to be in one place. I think they didn't adapt quite as easily. They enjoy being more rooted. I think everybody adapts just differently and they enjoy being in one place.

Jones: Are they both close by?

Girardot: Our son is here. He owns a business here. He's in the commercial and residential real estate business. And our daughter and her husband are Secret Service Agents in Washington, D.C. (laugh)

Jones: Oh my, your son is in commercial real estate.

Girardot: Commercial and residential real estate business. And our daughter got by that business in kind of a strange way. She was a second grade school teacher with three degrees, and asked her father to run some numbers for her, this is before she was married, because she wanted to buy a townhouse in Virginia Beach, and found out as a second grade school teacher with three degrees, she couldn't afford a townhouse, which is a sad commentary on our education system. And so she started looking around and applied to the Secret Service and was one of a few women, obviously, in the service. There's not that many women in the Secret Service, but was chosen and selected to enter the service and she has done quite well.

Jones: I imagine she would. And her husband also?

Girardot: And she met her husband there. He's also an agent and so they have this strange lifestyle. (laugh)

Jones: Well for you, maybe, for some people.

Girardot: That's correct.

Jones: There used to be kind of a-- it's not an old wives tale, it is a truism that I don't know if is strictly Secret Service, well yeah, I guess it was Secret Service as well as the people out at Langley would look for teachers. Teachers seem to be a prime target. And I used to wonder about this. And finally, I got up enough nerve to ask a retired, highly placed fellow from the Foreign Service and also in the spy game. He said they were very adaptable. They were very adaptable. They have to be.

Girardot: Yeah, you have to be, and very organized, very motivated people. And they just keep such awful hours for the rest of us.

Jones: And on-- call at odd times.

Girardot: Absolutely, a very difficult lifestyle for many of us, but my hat's off to them. They're an incredible group of people.

Jones: Well good for you for raising such responsible human beings!

Girardot: Thank you. I'm very proud of them.

Jones: Well you should be. You should be. And you know it's a wonderful mark for the both of you, you and your husband, too. It says something. Alright now-- how in the world-- let me ask you this. You graduated from what university or what college?

Girardot: Actually, I haven't from any of them. I've not been there, but probably through life's experiences alone.

Jones: I think that counts for a great deal. It does. I know for a fact it does. How did you become Executive Officer of the Chamber of Commerce for four districts, four counties?

Girardot: For five cities, actually.

Jones: Five cities, all right, and that is in Virginia Beach, in those environments. Did you just start in and worked your way up quickly?

Girardot: Mm-hmm, yeah, started as Executive Officer for one city, and then ended up with two, and then three cities, because it's a regional chamber. It's a five-city chamber.

Jones: All right, now you get to Wilmington. When did you come here about? Can you tell me?

Girardot: Came here about 12 years ago, I think, and started working with the Wilmington Regional Association of Realtors as their Governmental Affairs Director. This is something that I've done since I left school. My first job, really, right out of school was Chief of Staff for a United States senator in Washington, D.C. And that's when I got bit by the political bug. And once you've been bit, you stay bit, and I've loved politics ever since. So that was my first experience with politics there, and since then, on the political side, I've worked for a state representative and a state senator, and Chairman of the Republican Party in Virginia, as well.

Jones: Really? When was that?

Girardot: That was while we were up in Virginia Beach, as well, after I-- when I was with the chamber-- before I was with the chamber. And that was the year-- and I can't keep all the years in my head-- but that was the year that when I was working with him, with the Chairman of the Republican Party, we took the governors, lieutenant governor, attorney general and one house all in one election. And then we came back in the next election and took the second house, the first time that had ever happened.

Jones: George Allen?

Girardot: Yep-- no, it was Gilmore.

Jones: Gilmore.

Girardot: That was the first time that had ever happened, and that became a model that was used by both parties, republicans and democrats to copy that campaign up until Barack Obama, and now that is-- that is a game changer. That campaign is definitely the role model for campaigns, the last campaign, but that had been the role model up until then. And then coming down here, of course, putting B.A.S.E. together has been really fun and a real challenge.

Jones: Now explain B.A.S.E. again.

Girardot: Okay, B.A.S.E. stands for Business Alliance for a Sound Economy, and we started that in 2002. And it is a 501C6, a not for profit. And it is a lobbying organization for about 12,000 individuals in southeastern North Carolina. And we've got a new group that's just joined us out of Carteret County, as well. We are also doing the lobbying for another new group that we've just picked up in the last two weeks called NC20, which is made up of municipalities, and economic development groups and private individuals in the 20 coastal counties in North Carolina. We do regulatory and legislative work for realtors, home builders, and as I said now, economic development groups, those kinds of things on issues, everything from home owners insurance, which is a big issue out there right now, to beach nourishment, storm water issues, things like that.

Jones: It's just the whole nine yards that affects southeastern North Carolina.

Girardot: Absolutely, and I've got two registered lobbyists that work for me. I'm a registered lobbyist as well.

Jones: In North Carolina, you have to register as a lobbyist or not?

Girardot: The laws are very, very tight, have been tightened in the last couple years, as you can well imagine with everything that's happened in the last few years. And whenever you talk to state organizations, or state agencies or general assembly members, you need to be registered when you're advocating on behalf of legislation or a bill. Now there are groups or individuals out there that are not doing that, but at their own peril.

Jones: Yeah, it's kind of stupid not to. Interesting, I'm blown away here. (laugh) I don't know where to start. (laugh) I had no idea that you were that involved on the political end of it; however, thank you. I have to say that. And I don't mind saying that. (laugh) Let's get on to your role with the Home Builders Association and anything around it right now. I imagine that like a lot of other things having to do with homes, commercial real estate, land, whatever, it's kind of down. You can talk about that, and tell us, if you can, if you will, I should put it that way, because you see this coming too, the people in that business see it coming, or was it just something that evolved, crept up over a period of a couple years?

Girardot: Well a little bit about the association, if I could.

Jones: Please.

Girardot: The Wilmington-Cape Fear Home Builders Association is the third largest in the state next to Charlotte and Raleigh. We're the largest trade association east of I-95, and we have 1,100 businesses that belong, and employ about 9,500 people. And in this region, we are 20 percent of the workforce, and 24 percent of wages and salaries in this region. So you can imagine that when, in this economy, when we're down, and we are down, that's why you're hearing the county and the city talk about budget cuts and layoff and things like that, because obviously, we're having a tremendous impact on what's going on out there right now because of the spin-off effect from our industry. And having said that, I wish I could say that we all saw it coming. This has been a double whammy for our industry, because if you remember, it's only been about two years ago, probably a little over two years ago that we went through the sewer moratorium.

Jones: Right.

Girardot: And we thought okay, if we can ride out this one year, and thank goodness it only turned into about a year of the sewer moratorium which shut down all of New Hanover County, we'll get back on our feet and, you know, get going again. Well unfortunately, we no sooner got back on our feet and then the economy hit us. So it was almost like getting hit first by a tractor, and then you start to scramble back up, and then you get hit by the train. So I don't think anybody really saw the force of the train coming, not quite that big. We saw the economy slowing, and in 2005-2006, when everything, all the-- we were going through a period which was really an anomaly, you know, where prices were shooting out of control. And I remember real estate agents calling me down in Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and all along this saying I can't even get this house on the market. I've got people standing at the kitchen counter just throwing bids at me, you know, just out-bidding each other on the price of the houses. And so that was really an anomaly. And people are saying, you know, well my house was worth such-- and-- such just two years ago or three years ago. Well but those were way inflated, highly inflated prices. We thought at least that we would probably get back to normality, but unfortunately, this is certainly not normality. So no, I don't think anybody really saw the force of this, of what we're into right now coming. I thought-- I think we thought we were going to have a slowdown, yes, but not to this extent. And then I hear-- I have people say to me when do you think it's going to bottom out, or when do you think it's going to be over. I don't think anybody knows. My personal opinion is that I'm not sure that the answer is throwing money, after money after money at it. My personal opinion, this is more consumer confidence than anything else. And I feel like if even if you gave everybody $2,000 and said here, go on a shopping spree, go out and spend it tomorrow, I'd be more inclined myself to put it in the bank right now, and I think probably the majority of us would be, or put it under our mattress. So I really think that we've got to restore consumer confidence, and that's-- I really think that's the bottom line right now.

Jones: Do you or any of the people that you work closely with expressed any unhappiness, let's say-- I think mistrust it too harsh a word to use-- with the lenders? Now there are banks and then are lenders. There are just lending companies who would be creative, as they say, in their lending, loans for housing so that a lot of people who were marginal or who would never have gotten loans before were able to buy properties which they're going to lose, they have lost. And then what happens? The banks can't take back the properties. What happens in a market like this? Are we going to take a look at houses with for sale or land is for sale signs all over town, let it get worse and have them disintegrate? I don't think that this Obama infusion of cash or nationalizing banks is the answer, obviously not. You still have to provide people with the money to pay for it. So in that field, what is the thinking in generally, or can you say, or would you dare to say? I know nobody knows.

Girardot: I don't think there's any magic bullet out there. Obviously, we've got people in houses that shouldn't have been in houses to begin with. We've got other people in houses through circumstances that do need help right now, in order to stay in the houses. And I don't think there's any magic bullet out there right now. I don't know. I don't know if there is a magic bullet, Carroll. I think there's smarter minds than mine out there probably trying to come up with that answer for you.

Jones: Now taking into consideration the term home builders, I have seen several projects around town, one close to where I live, that was being developed and now it's abandoned. The developers or the builders of those properties, do they just walk away from it? Do they still pay liens on it? What happens to it?

Girardot: Well it depends on the circumstances. In some circumstances, the bank has called the loan and the bank owns it now. In other circumstances, the builder has declared bankruptcy. It could be just about anything in other instances, and I've known banks that have refused to give draws. The builder has been in the middle of a project and can't get his draw. So it could be any number of things that's happened now. I've had good builders, really excellent, excellent builders in this economy that have lost their businesses and it can't reflect on the builder. I mean sure, you've got your-- in some circumstances, you're weeding out the weed from the shaft, but in others, you've got some really good builders and good companies that are going down. It's not just builders. There are engineering firms, attorneys, good banks, good banks. This is an equal opportunity bad situation.

Jones: Yeah, it is. Can you tell us-- Southeastern North Carolina, from what I understand, and certain statistics that I have seen is one of the wealthiest areas in the state, allegedly. Certain statistics from the last census showed that we have one of the highest concentrations of retired Fortune 500 mid and upper level people living here, retiring earlier. They took their golden parachutes or whatever. They may not live here all year round, but they're on the tax rolls. They also have been very good in contributing to non-profits here and kind of diving in and doing other things. I don't know if these were people who they're all looking for beach properties, which are almost nonexistent now, or the gated communities, if these are people who bought their homes outright or whatever. But do you suppose that this phenomenon was a little responsible for this heady atmosphere that this is a special area and prices are going to just zoom, which they did overnight, or did you see this all over the country, or all over the state, or in certain rarified areas? In other words, New Hanover County-- let's say Pender, New Hanover, Brunswick, fast growing. Did this happen to excess in these areas over the rest of the state, as an example?

Girardot: You mean with your older, wealthier people moving in here, did it inflate the cost of it?

Jones: Yeah, for the responsible, you know as you said, realtors, and I heard this from a couple, they solicit you. Do you want to sell your house? And they did. They were selling houses left and right.

Girardot: I don't know whether it over-inflated the cost of housing to any degree. I think we do have a higher population of 50-plus housing here, of marketing to that group. I know we have in the HBA, in the Home Builders Association, a council, a 50-plus council, because that is a big demographic for us here in this area. But I don't know whether that over-- inflated the cost of the housing or not, because we also have, don't forget, another niche market here and that is our second homes and our vacation home market, too. And that tends to be in that high priced area, as well. You know that's the Figure 8 and the Wrightsville Beach market, that kind of thing. So you know I'm not so sure that that would have had an undue bearing on inflating our price. You know and we've also got the water, as you said, and that-- you know everybody wants to live on the water, and they're not making much more waterfront property, you know. So you know that, in itself, tends to drive up prices, you know, the fact that there's limited waterfront property, and when that turns over, that will inflate cost. So I think there's a lot of factors out there. The university is a big draw, the university.

Jones: And the medical.

Girardot: And the medical and the historic area, you know the downtown. I mean this whole area has a lot to recommend itself that I think keeps the price of housing up. You know look at all the new restaurants and all that comes in. It's a very cosmopolitan area.

Jones: Someone-- I don't know how accurate this research is-- but came up with the fact that there were well over 400 restaurants where you could eat out every night of the week for well over a year and not hit the same place twice. Of course, that does include a lot of your fast foods. We've also seen stores, restaurants included, boutiques, etcetera, you know open and then close six months, a year later. (laugh) And you're right, there are a lot of draws. One of the segments that I do is, just for all intensive purpose, under one heading, the arts. That includes painting, metal work, pottery, the theater, etcetera. And I talked to a young girl, young lady who had come here with a friend and I asked her why, why Wilmington. She is a member of a group that they do planning. They do all kinds of things together. She said, "There is so much challenge here. You can learn." And she said, "There is something about the light in Wilmington." And I started asking some of the other artists that I would interview why do you like to do plein air. There's something about the light in Wilmington. And people let you do what you want without making you feel badly. So you're right. I know that's a draw.

Girardot: I've heard that before. I've heard that light in Wilmington. I think we're very liberal, but yet a very cosmopolitan community. We've got the film industry here, you know, and I think that in itself just draws that group. I really do. And yet we're a small town and you know we still have that small town atmosphere. I just think that's a draw.

Jones: Well I think you're absolutely right. How does this--

Girardot: And then if I could interject, because this is one my pet peeves. (laugh) I just get the biggest charge out of these people that keep writing into the newspaper, those letters to the editor that always complain about the traffic jams in Wilmington. To me, the definition of a traffic jam in Wilmington is two cycles at the light, you know. (laugh) They forget that they moved here from Boston, and Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Jones: I know where there is real traffic.

Girardot: Yes. (laughs)

Jones: However, I can't help but notice that maybe I've been here long enough to adapt this ridiculous attitude, but I had to stop for a light at 16th Street and Market the other day, through two lights, and I thought good heavens, this isn't Wilmington. I thought stop it. (laugh) But I hear enough of the natives talk about going to town, and to dress up when you went to town, and that you could walk anywhere and I'm thinking but it's that way in large cities, too, in many places.

Girardot: Yes.

Jones: Not just Wilmington. But you're right; there are a lot of people who are coming here. I'm so glad they are, because they're fascinating and they add so much to the area.

Girardot: Absolutely.

Jones: They bring so much of their talents with them. There are over 400 non-- profits in town now, and some of them are doing the same things. They just combine their efforts and really make a big hit.

Girardot: I think in this economy, I think you're going to see that happening.

Jones: We're going to have to.

Girardot: Yeah.

Jones: We're going to have to do that. But it's good that these people want to help, but at the same time, we also do a segment on volunteers. Their big criteria is that they have to do more work than two hours a week (laugh) and really do hands-- on work, you know. Where do you see us going, or do you have any idea? You wouldn't venture to talk about it, I guess.

Girardot: Going as a community?

Jones: Yeah, with all that's happening. There are so many changes. There are tremendous changes all over the country, but here, as well. I think one reason we feel it a lot, and I say that with a very narrow perspective, is that we do have an awful lot of educated people, people in business, people who have traveled, people who have been there. It's just I've heard so many people say well they're a little stifled as to what to do right now. Everybody is. In your particular job, what's the feeling, or is there a feeling?

Girardot: I think we're going to continue to grow. And it makes me smile because Don Ansell called me last week and he said, (laugh) you know there's only been one person that's ever asked me a question I couldn't answer (laugh) and he said that was you. And he said, "I always think about that." He had me on his program, on his talk radio program before he quit-- I mean before he retired one time and he said to me. He said, "How much growth is too much?" And I said, "I don't know, Don." I said, "Was it too much when you moved here, or was it too much when I moved here?" And he said, "You know what? That really brought me up short," (laugh) he said, "because I couldn't answer you." He said, "That was a good answer." And you know I think people will continue to move here. I think they'll continue to find it a good place to be. And you know we still have room to grow. We're not overgrown here, despite what people you might hear from the no growth crowd out there.

Jones: Yeah, but there's always those.

Girardot: There's always those, no matter where you live. There's always folks that say, you know, there's too many people and that kind of thing.

Jones: There are naysayers about everything.

Girardot: Absolutely, but look at Brunswick County. There's still plenty of room to grow. Look at Pender County. Once they get their infrastructure in up there, which they don't have, but there's still plenty of room to grow in Pender County. And you know Duplin, there at River Landing; they advertise themselves as a bedroom community to Wilmington. That's how they advertise themselves, beautiful homes there. And you know they come into town. They consider themselves part of Wilmington. They use our medical facilities. They come into town for dinner. They come-- they advertise themselves as being 30 minutes from the beach. I mean Wilmington is the downtown for the entire region. And that's what we found in Hampton Roads, Norfolk was the downtown for Virginia Beach, for Chesapeake, you know for everyplace else. And that's what we're becoming. We're becoming, you know, that area where we serve the downtown for everyplace around us.

Jones: Erin has heard me say this. She's probably bored with it, but it crops up too often and I think it's a truism. One of the people I interviewed said that as far as-- he's a native in business, having a little bit of a tough time right now-- and he said that he always foresaw that Wilmington would remain the jewel in the center of this growth.

Girardot: Without a doubt.

Jones: That because Wilmington has very little buildable land left in it, to keep green space and the water, etcetera. And because of the phenomenal growth of Brunswick County and now tremendous growth in Pender County, and because of our medical center, and because of the arts that Wilmington would be the jewel in the middle of these bedroom communities. And you'd come here to play, and to be entertained and to get your history. And I thought that is a fantastic way to look at it. And I mentioned this to Don one time and I said, "How do you feel about that?" Well Don said, "Well I like to think of it that way because I live in Brunswick County." (laugh) And so I wasn't too sure, but I thought and then I asked my husband, who is a native. He said, "That's okay by me. I just don't want anybody (laugh) moving next door to me that's only going to be there two years and not take care of their lawn, you know has kids with Big Wheels on Sunday morning." (laugh) I thought thank you for that. (laugh)

Girardot: But it is true. That's how all your big cities operate, you know and it is true. The only thing that we're lacking here-- and we have got to do something about it, because we can't keep growing as a vacation community or as a retirement community, and that's what we've been doing. We have got to start bringing in more industry, no matter how you define the word industry. And I'm not talking about heavy metal or things like that. Whether it's IT, or whether it's retail, or no matter what it is, but you've got to start bringing in some commercial or some industrial component.

Jones: To provide jobs.

Girardot: To provide jobs, without a question, because we can't keep educating our children here and then having, with UNCW, a facility like this, or even Cape Fear Community College, and not provide places for them to stay. They can't keep being educated here and leave here. And we've got to keep bringing in those jobs here, because that's your base of any community. You're got to provide that workforce base to a community. You can't keep providing a seasonal base with your tourism industry, or a retirement base where, you know, you're supporting your older population through your medical facilities and things like that. You can't grow a community like that. And we've not been real good at doing that so far.

Jones: Well you think about the-- a lot of talk in the last few years, way too much talk and not enough action about do we or do we not have a convention center, and is it going to make money, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, ad nauseum. How do you feel about that?

Girardot: There's no question in my mind. We have got to have a convention center.

Jones: Yeah, exactly.

Girardot: Now whether it's going to make money, maybe for the first two years. If it breaks even, I'll be happy, but we've got to have a convention center.

Jones: It's going to provide jobs.

Girardot: It's going to provide jobs and it's going to put this town on the map.

Jones: It's a great place to come for people, and the location.

Girardot: It's a great place to come. And I am so tired. As a large organization, I do-- our organization does probably 25 events a year. And for the life of me, I have a terrible time finding locations to have these events at. And it's awful, because I'm competing with all these other organizations out there on a monthly basis and it's terrible. I try to do a general membership meeting even once a month for 150-- 200 people, and I'm terribly limited to maybe two, or three or four places in town to have those.

Jones: I heard someone say this and I believe it to be true, the old adage that came from a movie, I think, build it and they will come. And it will provide jobs.

Girardot: Absolutely.

Jones: And if nothing else, schools graduate every May. They have proms every May. It is ridiculous. They have to wait in line days to have a prom, a graduation prom; some of it taking place in this campus or whatever and not do it at one time. There are a lot of other things too. That's interesting. I think more and more people are getting used to the idea that that would be a good idea and we're hearing less and less flack about it.

Girardot: Yeah.

Jones: How about downtown development commercial buildings and such?

Girardot: I'm just really pleased and delighted to see the way the downtown has been revitalized and is coming back over the last few years. I have a lot of respect for these developers and builders that have gone in there and bitten the bullet and done what they've done, and the city, the backing that the city has given them in a lot of these cases to make it possible for them to do what they have done. I remember in particular, Dave Nathan's, I think it was, was on our board a number of years back, and it was amusing, because he used to come in on the board meetings in this building, that office building on Third Street at the time. And it was in a bad section of town at that time. And you went right over the overpass at that point. And he'd walk into the board meeting and the other builders would sit there and make the sound of a limb being sawed, a branch being sawed off, you know as he walked into the room, just giving him a hard time like he was on the end of a limb and it was being sawed off, because you know everybody was doubtful that that was really going to go. He was out there all by himself. And yet today, you know, the city is extending far down beyond that building. And yet that was a good thing for him to do, and he was taking a chance, but it paid off. And you know I'm just-- I'm proud of these folks that have done these projects down there. They're nice projects. Dave Nathan, Dave Spetrino, Taconic all of these guys, they've done a nice job. They really have, Gene Merit. I mean I could go on. I'm going to leave some of these guys out, I know if I keep going.

Jones: Gene Merritt was one of these people who had an idea back here a few years ago about where that parking deck is, and building a park, a memorial park that overlooked the river. And I guess he'd gone to enough expense to have some architects do some preliminary drawings and so forth. And it looked great on paper. It was not going to interfere with anything. It was not going to interfere with one of the wonderful old buildings or anything like that, and I never heard anything further about it. And at one time, when he was asked, he said, "Well it just wasn't good for the time. And it was kind of too bad, because it would be a place people could go sit and watch."

Girardot: Yeah, he has such vision. He really does. And he's done so many good things for the city.

Jones: What would you like to see happen here, if you had, let's say, a wish?

Girardot: Happen here in this region, if I had a wish?

Jones: Yeah.

Girardot: Oh if I had a wish, gosh, I'd hate to turn me loose with a wish.

Jones: Well just pick one.

Girardot: (laugh) I would wish that-- right now, I would wish that the economy would turn around and we would get instantly back on our feet, and things would pick up and we'd all get back to work. That's what I would wish for.

Jones: Well I think you probably have a couple million right behind you on that one. How about for Southeastern North Carolina, are we really and truly completely tied to what's happening in our country today, this downturn and so forth, or will we survive?

Girardot: Southeastern North Carolina has always been different, especially when it comes to the economy, and especially if it comes, when it comes to our business, both real estate and commercial and residential development. We have never followed the state trends. We have never followed the national trends. We have always been a little bit better. And so when there's been a downturn, we've always come out of it first. And when there's been an economic downturn, we have never been quite as bad as they have been. So having said all that, I'm hopeful that when things turn around that we'll be turning around before anybody else. And it's also been positive that our downturn has not been as bad as a lot of other places in the country. We've not been a Florida. We've not been a California. We've not been a Nevada. And so you know that's a positive. You know we're still selling houses. We're still building houses. We don't have as much inventory. We don't have as many foreclosures. You know there's a lot of positives out there, and we can look at our glass as half full and not half empty.

Jones: Are you still seeing people move into the area?

Girardot: Mm-hmm, they sure are, and we're still selling houses.

Jones: In numbers, that is.

Girardot: Yeah, not as many, and primarily because they can't sell their houses in the places that they're leaving.

Jones: That's a thought.

Girardot: And so that's basically the problem. It's not that there's not good inventory here for them to buy, because there's just never-- and I know you probably here this, but if anybody's listening to me out there, there is never a better time to buy a house than right now.

Jones: That's for sure, or a car.

Girardot: Or a car.

Jones: Absolutely.

Girardot: You know the interest rates are so low, and there is beautiful, wonderful inventory out there right now, I mean if you want to live on the ocean, if you want to live on the other coast, or if you want to live in the historic district, if you want to live in a gated community, if you want to live in condo.

Jones: That's for sure.

Girardot: I mean you have your choice and, you know a new home, existing home, great inventory, great prices, so this is definitely the time. I wouldn't hold back.

Jones: What prepared you for this job and your position, the position you have?

Girardot: Which one, the B.A.S.E. job or the homebuilders' job? (laugh) Which hat would you like?

Jones: Either one, either one. You're very knowledgeable. And I know that you're not a licensed realtor, or are you?

Girardot: No, I was at one time.

Jones: You were.

Girardot: I was at one time.

Jones: I didn't know whether that was that you would have to be, in other words, to comply or anything.

Girardot: No.

Jones: Okay, but you're not now?

Girardot: No.

Jones: What kind of prep did you have for this job as the Homebuilders Association, or was it just-- well you tell me.

Girardot: Well when I was with the chamber, I attended eight years at the Institute for Organizational Management at University of Georgia, which is really a very intense preparation for leading organizations, managing organizations, non-- profits and things like that, which I think really prepares you for this type of position. And then I have led a number of other non-- profits over the years, so I think that, in itself. As far as B.A.S.E., I've done years and years of lobbying, trained lobbyists. I have trained a number of different lobbyists to work for me. I love the mental challenge of politics. I liken it to a chess game.

Jones: I bet you've had a field day this past year.

Girardot: Yeah, (laugh) I do. I like the mental challenge. I think it's almost like playing chess.

Jones: Mm-hmm, it is.

Girardot: I had a mayor say to me up in Chesapeake when I left there, the man that came in and took my position, his name was Bill Halloran. And he said the difference between Donna and Bill is that when Donna can't get what she needs, she goes around, she leaves the front door, she goes around to the back and she climbs in through a window, unlike Bill, who sets the charges at the front door, you know. (laugh)

Jones: Goodness. (laugh) This is kind of a game for you in a way about one-- upmanship, if you can kind of make it?

Girardot: No, not necessarily one-- upmanship, because I compete more against myself than I do other people.

Jones: I'll bet you do.

Girardot: Yeah.

Jones: You probably set pretty high goals.

Girardot: I like to do better each time than I've done in the past, so I don't, if that makes sense. I don't compete against other people as much as I compete against me.

Jones: I think most successful people do that. They don't really care what other people think, as long as they do the job.

Girardot: Yeah.

Jones: I know that pretty much. (laugh) Let's talk about United Way. I really don't know that much about it anymore. I used to. It seems not to be in the news that much. Maybe it's because I pass over it. I have no idea. And I think Howard Levine used to be at one time involved. He enjoyed it. But he said it did take an awful lot of work. I'm not sure whether he found it rewarding or not. That's not the point. But again, here we go. We've got so many different organizations in town, all vying for funds. And what is it about the United Way that is special, or organized or whatever?

Girardot: Well I have served on the board of United Way a number of years back, and I resigned because I found that they were just distributing money the way they had always distributed money. And the people that asked for it in the past got it every year, got it again. There didn't seem to be-- it just wasn't the way that I felt it needed to be, and I didn't-- I just wasn't comfortable with the whole process. But this time, when I got the call to join the board, I was told a couple years ago that we've reorganized the whole thing, and now there's a sense of competition. Everybody applies. There's a real sense of we've identified those areas of the community needs that are out there, and everybody applies based on those community needs. And it's not necessarily that this non-- profit gets money every year, despite what they do, or what their needs are or anything else. And there's a real definite structure that's followed, and you know we're really-- it's called community impact. And that's where we're at. We're going to make a real impact in the community based on what the community's needs are, and a lot of stakeholder in put into that. And I thought this is what I've really needed to see, I think, all along, and this is-- I think, they've hit the nail on the head. This is what I was looking for last time. Okay, I'll come back. So I joined the board and I've been very, very impressed with the way they've done it. And they bit the bullet, and some of these old time non-- profits that were used to the old way didn't like it and they dropped out. They didn't like having to compete for their money, and they were used to just getting it handed to them. And so it created quite a stir, but United Way, to their credit, stayed with it.

Jones: Good.

Girardot: And they took a lot of heat, a lot of heat, and I'm really serious, but they stayed with it and did it the correct way. And they didn't just cut them off, you know over night. They did a 3-- year process. They processed through the system. They gave them a third that first year, and then they took away two-- thirds the second year, and then the last third the third year, and then you know they started the process in that fourth year. So it was a well put together program process. And now we're totally into this community impact and it's working really well. So having said all that, it's a very well run organization. The board is extremely strong. It's one of the strongest boards that I've had the pleasure to serve with.

Jones: Well that's great.

Girardot: We have very intense discussions. And not everybody agrees, but everybody speaks their mind and at the end, we come to a consensus. A lot of good exchanges of information, dialogue, so I'm very pleased to be a part of it.

Jones: Well that keeps your mind moving.

Girardot: Yeah.

Jones: And you know that whatever decisions are made are probably the right ones.

Girardot: Yeah, and I was stunned when they asked me to be vice-- chair this year and step up next year. I mean I feel very proud.

Jones: How are you going to have time to wear all these hats?

Girardot: I'll work on that. (laugh) I'll work on that. (laugh)

Jones: Well let's see. You probably did these things even when you had kids growing up.

Girardot: Well actually, when my kids were small, that's when I started my own business so that I could work my hours around my children and be home. That's when I trained hunters and jumpers and then sold them, you know. I trained hunters and jumpers.

Jones: Isn't that an expensive venture?

Girardot: That was an expense-- ask my husband. That was an expensive venture, but I loved it, of course, you know, and then I showed them on the circuit, you know and then sold them. And so then my other business I started was in the tourist business, and I had a double-- decker English bus and I hired travel-- hired--

Jones: You did not let any grass grow underneath you.

Girardot: No, no, I had guys working for me and I did all the logistics works for the American Cruise Line, the Mississippi Queen, the Delta Steamboat Company, and so-- but that way then, I could work my hours around my children being home from school and that kind of thing.

Jones: Yeah, well that's good.

Girardot: Yeah.

Jones: You know I'm glad to hear things like this, and I'm glad that people are going to be able to access this too, because I get a little bored hearing people say well my duty is to my children and I'm going to stay home until they're grown. Well that's too bad for them, too. (laugh)

Girardot: Well I think the most important thing for a woman is to mentor other women. And I hope, and I'll always hope that somebody mentor's my daughter. And I hope that if I can leave somebody with something, I hope it's that women take that seriously. I think it's extremely important that women mentor other women.

Jones: And more, and more, and more as the years go by.

Girardot: Yes.

Jones: Donna, thank you so much.

Girardot: Thank you very much.

Jones: It's been interesting. It's been fun. And you are, again, one of these people, and I knew you would be; you don't know why I want to interview you, you had nothing to say. Well it's an hour later. (laugh)

Girardot: (laughs)

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