North Carolina’s New Tools

13 Jan, 2014

By David Hodes


The broken economy is on the mend in North Carolina. North Carolina Commerce Department Secretary Sharon Allred Decker says she believes that economies are best rebuilt when a state works with what they already have, and capitalizes on the skills they have to further innovation creation. “What we did in the past was maybe capitalize on a couple of industries,” she says. “You will see us rebuilding now with a focus on much more diversity.”


One way the state has been doing that since 2003 is through the incentive program they use for job creation, the Job Development Investment Grants, which provides as much as $15 million a year in sustained annual grants to new and expanding businesses for up to 12 years. The program ends in 2016.


Allred Decker says that the commerce department will announce a new collaborative workforce development initiative this month, which is between her department and the state’s community college system. “We want to bring them together in a much more comprehensive way so it’s a lot easier for workers to get the skills development that they need and a lot easier for employers to find the trained employees that they need,” she says.


North Carolina has a great track record for innovation at its universities, but not so great when it comes to commercializing research and development. “We want to chase that talent, that innovation, and invest with them to help grow the commercialization aspect,” Allred Decker says.


One of the commerce department’s focuses is on growing the state’s advanced manufacturing sector, which plays into its strength as a hub of five military operations, including the legendary bases Fort Bragg and Camp LeJeune.


The military supports approximately 10 percent of the state’s economy, according to an economic impact report released by the commerce department. There are 340,000 military-supported jobs in the state. “We really want to build more supporting businesses around them in the area of aviation,” Allred Decker says.



Industries and Innovations


Caldwell County’s officials have been working a new strategy. “In 2012 we wanted to be a strategically different economy but still incorporate the traditional industries,” says Deborah Murray, referring to furniture making and textiles. She is the executive director for the Caldwell County Economic Development Corp.


Murray found out that they really couldn’t go out and “get what they wanted on the Christmas list” but did manage to diversify the economy. For example, Carolina Prime Pet Inc., a pet treat maker, added 150 jobs. Lubrimetal Corp., an Italian company that makes lubricants for the wire industry, located its first U.S. operation in Granite Falls, making a $1.9 million investment.


What’s more, Google committed to a $600 million expansion of its operations in Lenoir. The continued growth at Google has represented a crystal ball look into the future for the region. “We have all said that we must redefine ourselves,” Murray says. “And I think we have worked toward the types of opportunities that will take us into the 21st and 22nd century jobs.”


Along the state’s border in the mid-north region is Rockingham County. A major expansion is underway at Sturm, Ruger & Co. Inc., a firearms manufacturer. The company will be moving into an existing building, making a $27 million investment and adding 500 new jobs.  “That’s a big win for us,” says Graham Pervier, president, Rockingham County Partnership for Economic and Tourism Development.


Pervier says that part of county’s economic success revolves around the number of abandoned industrial buildings left behind when the textile industry took a nose dive years ago. However, that legacy business is rebounding. One textile company, Gerbing’s Heated Clothing, moved their operations back to Rockingham County from an operation in China, bringing back 150 jobs.


In Chatham County, economic development officials are working on two very large projects — one in the eastern part of the county, the other in the western part. “Each has the impact to transform the county dramatically,” says Dianne Reid, president and CEO, Chatham Economic Development Corp.


In the east project a developer has purchased 7,100 acres for a mixed-used development that would have a business campus at its core geared toward research and development technology-related medical companies. Called Chatham Park the plan calls for 22,000 homes, 21 million square feet of non-residential development, and the creation of approximately 25,000 jobs to 30,000 jobs.

On the western border of the county is the 1,800-acre Chatham-Randolph Megasite, which is mostly located in Chatham County, with a few acres in Randolph County. The megasite is located near Highway 421 and south of Interstate 85, and features 5,000 feet of rail frontage.

Additional opportunities in the area are a result of the closure of two large chicken processors, which opens up water and sewer capacities, Reid says. “We are going through the engineering studies now and hope to market that soon,” she says, adding officials are looking to attract an OEM manufacturer to the site.


Talent and Education


Pervier says that North Carolina’s 58-community college education system has stepped up training for welders, and for computer numeric control (CNC) machinists. Two of the community college system’s industry partners, AT&T and Duke Energy, recently announced scholarships totaling more than $200,000.


In Chatham County, Reid says that they are working with the Central Carolina Community College that serves Chatham, Lee and Harnett counties. Reid’s organization is close to implementing an initiative to put an additional counselor in each of the high schools in these counties to help students and partners understand advanced manufacturing and technical careers as a viable option for their life’s work.




Murray says there is a 66-acre tract of land available in Caldwell County associated in with the Grace Chapel/U.S. 321 connector and road project, which is ideal for light industrial or offices.


The new roads for the park will be finished early this year.


In Rockingham County, Pervier says the availability of abandoned buildings has resulted in 85 percent to 90 percent of their business development traffic coming in to take a look at the existing buildings. “It’s quicker and cheaper to get a business up and running, and there is a fair amount of product out there,” he adds.




North Carolina is well-known for its moderate climate, its natural amenities such as beaches and mountains, and its low cost of living. In fact, housing, utilities, transportation and health care are all below the national average.


Murray says one of the reasons why companies such as Google came to the region is the abundance of affordable utilities, such as water, electricity and natural gas. “That makes a huge difference to them because these are sustained costs,” she says.


Murray says that her region, like many regions in North Carolina, have buildings sitting idle —which are useful in leveraging economic development opportunities. The state has had a good program for building renovations, which has enabled Caldwell County to put close to a million- and-a-half square feet of abandoned factories back in use in the last year and a half. “I would like to see a larger percentage of our projects be new, from the ground up construction,” Murray notes.


Old is new, or renewed, in North Carolina. It’s a positive situation of legacy business meeting new innovative business, off-shore business coming back home bringing new jobs, and new collaborations jump-started by a diverse base of industries that the state hopes will last for years to come.


“We are in the midst of charging our batteries,” says Allred Decker. “We are building a set of tools that make the state more attractive now. But we also want businesses that want to be here for a lifetime. And we know there are ways to make it better for them to do business here.”


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Illustration by David Castillo Dominici at Free Digital

Down to Business

  • The North Carolina Community College System offers affordable, accessible programs through its 58-campus network that are within a 30-minute commute of 99 percent of the state’s population. The system is recognized nationally for its customized workforce training programs and offers a wide variety of occupational certification and continuing education programs. 
  • North Carolina has the second largest highway system in the nation, spanning more than 98,000 miles; the largest consolidated rails system in the country, with more than 3,200 miles of track; and three international airports, including the sixth-largest major airline hub in the nation.
  • North Carolina ranks first in manufacturing employment in the Southeast, and ninth in the nation.

Outdoors and Recreation

Covering more than a half a million acres, Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee is the most-visited national park in the country, with around 10 million visitors annually. The park has nearly 800 miles of hiking trails and 16 mountain peaks higher than 6,000 feet.

David Hodes

David Hodes is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at

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