Photo courtesy of Chad Austin
Appeared as a sponsored section in the February 2018 issue.
By Suzanne Woods
Scott Millar keeps two Wall Street Journal articles in his Hickory office. The first, from 1998, touts the region’s economic resilience. The second story came nearly two decades later — it’s about the city’s audacious bid for Amazon’s second U.S. headquarters, nicknamed HQ2. The community at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains pitched Catawba County’s site as a blank slate with a big-city neighbor in Charlotte. Apple Inc. has already built a data center nearby — if Siri calls Catawba home, well, why not Alexa?
Although Hickory did not make Amazon’s short list, the proposal shows the county’s ability to work toward a common goal, says Millar, president of the Catawba County Economic Development Corp. “We worked alongside the county, Hickory, and the other cities and towns, chambers of commerce, workforce-development commissions and had the help of an engineering and design firm,” he says. “It was a coalescing of so many groups to get it done under a tough deadline.”
It’s an effort honed by practice when the county worked to recover from the recession of 2007-09. Now, the hard work is paying dividends in a revitalized furniture industry and booming medical and education initiatives made possible by many of the must-haves on Amazon’s list, including access to interstate highways, a large, low-cost power grid, and a robust labor supply.
Millar displays the two newspaper articles as a reminder that Catawba County depends on cooperation in changing times. It wasn’t long after that 1998 article that the region suffered as a result of a slump in the fiber-optics industry. Millar says the story reminds him of the fable of the lion and the gazelle. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle — when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.
The furniture industry has ebbed and flowed here, but after years of declining employment, a renaissance is happening in Catawba County. From a “reshoring” of production jobs to the expansion of existing companies, furniture is reclaiming some of the luster lost as part of manufacturing’s overall decline. Furniture companies here added jobs between 2010 and 2015, and the trend seems on track to continue. Today, furniture production accounts for about 11,000 jobs in Catawba County, according to Hickory Furniture Mart, about a third of the industry’s jobs in the state.
National retailer Minneapolis-based Room & Board Inc. plans to open a $12.9 million 250,000-square-foot distribution center by 2020 in the Newton Corporate Center. Room & Board carries furniture from at least three Catawba County manufacturers: McCreary Modern, Lee Industries and Precedent, a division of Sherrill Furniture.
Sutter Street Manufacturing, a subsidiary of San Francisco-based Williams-Sonoma Inc., announced plans to invest $1.5 million to expand its Claremont facilities, adding 72 jobs. Sutter Street produces upholstered furniture for brands such as Pottery Barn, West Elm and Williams-Sonoma Home.
With 60% of furniture sold in the U.S. connected to the region, says Hickory Furniture Mart General Manager Tracey Trimble, the city is still very much a furniture capital. Drawing 500,000 visitors a year, Hickory Furniture Mart is easily the largest tourism attraction in the county, responsible for filling hotels, restaurants and shops on a weekly basis. The mart, which is so big visitors rarely can see every section in one day, features 100 showrooms filled with products from 1,000 companies, according to Trimble. Lately, the trend is for longer visits and more “whole house” purchases, she says, likely a result of a stable economy.
The mart also is attracting more visitors from Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Even after personal travel and shipping expenses, many foreign shoppers say that they’re saving money and getting better quality furniture than if they’d shopped at home, Trimble says. In fact, foreign business is so brisk that the mart’s in-house design team boasts designers who can speak several languages, including Farsi.
Global connections have long been a part of Catawba County’s “other” fiber, the fiber-optic cable that makes much of the world’s internet, cable television and telephone systems possible. Though sending an email across the world was unimaginable in 1976, Frank Drendel and Jearld Leonhardt laid the groundwork when they bought the cable division from Superior Continental Corp. Today, CommScope’s 1-million-square-foot plant is the world’s largest maker of coaxial cable that includes fiber inside its sheathing. Together with Corning Optical Communications, which operates one of the largest fiber cabling plants in Hickory, and Italy-based Prysmian Group’s Claremont plant, they make up a thriving telecom cluster attracting companies that serve the industry. Prysmian announced a $54 million expansion, its third, late last year. The company plans to add 50 jobs. Corning is spending $67 million to build a new cabling plant in Newton where it will bring 210 jobs.
Ensuring that those employers and others will continue to have a pipeline of qualified workers is the county’s ambitious “cradle to grave” education and workforce-development initiative. Developed by Catawba Valley Community College President Garrett Hinshaw and other school and business leaders, K-64 reached a milestone recently when it hired its second employee. Heather Benfield, who leads the organization’s student career services and business engagement department, joins Executive Director Mark Story, who was hired about a year ago. K-64 is funded by the county and private donations, operating on an annual budget of about $1.2 million, Story says.
The goal, he says, is to address a predicted exodus of working-age adults by creating opportunities for residents from kindergarten to retirement. That starts by creating a “seamless pathway” from school to the workforce by fostering initiatives such as STEM programs, early college high schools, targeted two-year degree programs and internships. It also places an emphasis on character education and the development of “soft” skills such as communication and critical thinking. K-64 also targets displaced or transitioning workers who need help preparing for a new career, Story says. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. What we’re trying to do is find those things we’re doing great and make them accessible to everyone.”
K-64 recently made its first investment: 2,000 Chromebooks for all Catawba County seventh-graders. “Our goal is 1:1 technology,” Story says. “It’s all about access.”
Access to quality medical care is another piece of the puzzle for attracting and retaining talent. Two major medical centers provide care for county residents: Catawba Valley Medical Center and Frye Regional Medical Center. Frye recently received its seventh consecutive “A” rating for patient safety from The Leapfrog Group. Catawba Valley is the county’s second-largest employer. The hospital welcomed new CEO Edward L. Beard Jr. in January.
But the county is gaining a reputation as a center for health education, too. This fall, Lenoir-Rhyne University will offer a doctorate in nursing, its first doctoral program, and a family nurse practitioner program. Offering practical experience to students and the community is ValleySim, a simulated hospital on the Catawba Valley Community College campus, which the school says is the largest such facility on the East Coast.
Healthy living is the idea behind a new Riverwalk and City Walk, projects made by possible by a $40 million bond package voters approved in 2014 for the walks and streetscape improvements. This year, residents will see work begin on the City Walk, a pedestrian-friendly connection between Lenoir-Rhyne and downtown Hickory. Riverwalk, as the name implies, will be developed along the Catawba River. The city is hopeful both projects will spur further economic development, particularly in downtown Hickory.
For Catawba County, it looks as if the best is yet to come.
Take two socks and call me in the morning
Jordan Schindler left his dermatologist’s office dismayed by what he’d just learned. The acne he was battling might improve if he were to use a fresh pillowcase every night. Without access to a well-stocked linen closet and limited time to do daily loads of laundry, the young college student needed a different solution. So Schindler created a pillowcase that fights acne while you sleep.
That was just the beginning for the Seattle entrepreneur. Seven years later, Conover-based Textile-Based Delivery Inc. — better known as TexDel —is expanding beyond its Nüfabrx-brand pillowcases using $3 million it has raised to develop clothing that can deliver wound-healing medications or improve muscle performance.
In 2016, Schindler moved his business from Seattle to Catawba County to take advantage of the region’s textile industry, he says, becoming one of the first tenants in a business incubator run by the Manufacturing Solutions Center, part of Catawba Valley Community College. Next up: Compression socks that deliver pain relievers. He plans to partner with nearby mills to produce the socks, which would be marketed to arthritis sufferers, athletes, golfers or those with jobs that require long hours of standing. Also in the pipeline are pants that moisturize legs, athletic shirts that give wearers steady doses of caffeine or energy formulas, and steering wheel covers that boost a driver’s performance.
All are made possible, Schindler says, by being close to the textile supply chain. “Frankly, I don’t know if we could have done what we have so far without being in Catawba County.”
We see you, C-SPAN
C-SPAN viewers are undoubtedly erudite, but even they are likely unaware that the network owes its existence in part to Hickory-based CommScope.
In 1979, the company supplied enough fiber-optic cable to link the U.S. House of Representatives to the fledgling network’s studios. Long before today’s ubiquitous 24-hour news cycle, C-SPAN had the revolutionary idea of connecting the American public and the country’s political leaders. C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb praised former CommScope CEO Frank Drendel for putting civic responsibility above profit. “It sounds almost Pollyanna-ish, but that’s the way it happened,” Lamb said in a November 2017 interview published in The Hill’s blog.
Today, C-SPAN’s three networks are available in 100 million U.S. households. The network also boasts a radio station, produces original programming and has expanded its international focus, including coverage of Great Britain’s House of Commons. Though it’s received its share of ribbing — late-night television host Seth Meyers famously called it the “official network for wide shots of empty chairs” — C-SPAN is still watched by 70 million viewers, nearly 40 years after its creation.
CommScope, fresh off 50th anniversary celebrations in 2017, employs nearly 25,000 people across the world and ranks among North Carolina’s largest publicly traded companies.
Solutions center has it down cold
The mountains on that Coors can may be the Rockies, but the technology that turns them from white to blue at the Colorado brewer’s trade-secret “super cold” temperature was tested in the Appalachian foothills.
But that’s old news, says Dan St. Louis, executive director of Catawba Valley Community College’s Manufacturing Solutions Center, which cranks out prototypes and tests materials in a former glove factory in Conover. In the decade since it was involved in the Coors project, the center has opened its 10,000-square-foot incubator, assisted hundreds of manufacturers, tested dozens of products and connected countless suppliers and manufacturers with executives and entrepreneurs.
Today, the center specializes in the apparel and textile industries that have traditionally thrived in Catawba County but with a 21st-century twist. It serves as headquarters for four startups bringing “smart” fibers and so-called connected clothing to market. InnovaKnits, for example, partnered with a fellow tenant to make a line of patent-pending toeless socks for babies and toddlers and with Fort Worth, Texas, dance-apparel company Apolla Performance Wear to make socks and shoes designed to prevent injuries in young dancers.
Though the number of textile-related jobs has shrunk to around 1,500, a fraction of its 12,000 peak in 1992, smart textiles are putting a premium on what was once considered a low-tech product.
“The textile industry in North Carolina today is very innovative,” St. Louis says. “It’s not your grandmother’s textile industry.”
Hey Siri, can you say Catawba?
Apple Inc. continues sowing seeds in Catawba County, recently acquiring more than 200 acres near its data centers in Maiden, says Scott Millar, president of the Catawba County Economic Development Corp.
The notoriously tight-lipped company won’t comment nor will it confirm whether its voice assistant and the company’s iCloud platform are based in Maiden, but it’s common knowledge that they are, Millar says. Apple will likely use the property to expand its existing 500,000-square-foot data center and “unmanned” computer facilities, he says.
The company has exceeded its original commitment to the county as part of an incentives package that included hiring 50 and investing $1 billion over nine years, Millar says. To date, the county can confirm Apple expenditures of more than $4 billion and a local workforce of more than 400.
The solar arrays Apple has installed near its data farm are included in those figures. The company’s 100-acre solar field in Maiden — one of the largest such green investments in the country — produces 14 megawatts of electricity the company uses to offset its power-hungry data centers across the country. The company also gets some of its power from a local biofuel plant that turns garbage into gas.
Apple’s nearly $5 billion investment in Catawba County helps cement the region’s status as a stop along North Carolina’s so-called “data corridor.” Notable neighbors include Google, which operates a server farm in Caldwell County, and Facebook’s $450 million data center in Forest City, built in 2010 and opened in 2012. In 2015, the social media giant announced it would invest another $200 million.