Arriving a little early for a 9 a.m. appointment to see Forest City’s industry recruiter, Tom Johnson, it was a bit jarring to hear his assistant, Birgit Dilgert, say he was having a cup of coffee across the street at Smith Drug. While big-city cubicle warriors crank out reports, it seems people in small towns still take time to get to know each other.
Indeed, walking around downtown Forest City, it isn’t hard to imagine the ‘50s and ‘60s when Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Smoky Burgess spent his off-seasons running a nearby gas station. “Fill it up, Smoky,” was a favorite town saying. At the time, U.S. 74 connected Charlotte and Asheville, a gorgeous, curvy route running through Forest City, Rutherfordton, Lake Lure, Bat Cave and other towns.
Getting around Forest City can be a little more complicated these days. For one thing, there are three highways with fairly similar names. Old U.S. 74 is called Business 74. A bypass on the west side, where Wal-Mart and other chain stores operate, is called 74A. And there’s U.S. 74, the near-interstate quality highway skirting town to the south. Still, a lot of interesting companies are finding their way to help transform the city that was originally called Burnt Chimney.
A month after Donald Trump’s surprising victory, which followed much rhetoric on bringing jobs back to the U.S., Taiwan’s Everest Textile Co. said it would open a Forest City plant that is expected to employ 610 people within five years, making fabric for athletic apparel. It’s Everest’s first U.S. facility, adding to sites in Taiwan, Thailand and mainland China.
North Carolina’s top industry hunter isn’t sure if shifting U.S. trade policy specifically influenced the company. “But things are converging in a way that we see heightened interest from overseas companies,” says Christopher Chung, the son of Taiwanese immigrants and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. He expects other foreign interests to follow Everest, which was the state’s biggest jobs expansion reported by Chung’s group in 2016.
The irony of a Chinese textile company investing in Forest City is obvious. For about a century, companies including Cone Mills, Stonecutter Mills, National Textiles and Burlington Industries were dominant employers. With the shift to overseas production, though, the population of 7,500 has barely budged over the last 40 years. None of those companies still operate in Rutherford County, where the labor force totals about 25,000, down from a peak of about 33,000 in 1997.
“[The city] has very much of a pro-growth attitude because they’ve seen a lot of closures of manufacturing plants over the years,” says Johnson, interim director of the Rutherford County Economic Development Commission.
While Everest is little known, the star in Forest City’s economic-development crown is one of the world’s buzziest companies. Menlo Park, Calif.-based Facebook will have 1.3 million square feet of data-center space when its fourth building is finished later this year. Announced in 2010, it’s one of a handful of such centers globally that store all those love notes, photos and diatribes that entertain millions. Facebook was drawn by the region’s ample energy and water supplies that are under-utilized after manufacturers’ exits. It employs 275 people at the site, which the county assessed at about $600 million as of Sept. 1.
In comparison, Everest says it will invest $18.5 million at a 400,000-square-foot plant built by General Fireproofing Co. in the early 1960s. It was later occupied by Hanes and National Textiles, while its most recent owner is Carpenter Design Inc., a locally owned pallet maker. In late February, wood ready to be turned into pallets covered at least an acre outside the plant. Everest was installing equipment that should be operating in a month or two, Johnson says, while the pallet company moves to a nearby site. North Carolina is offering $3 million in incentives if the company meets hiring targets.
Textile work doesn’t make anyone rich: Average annual wages at Everest are slated to be about $26,000, lower than Rutherford County’s average of about $36,000. But about 5,000 county residents now travel to Spartanburg, S.C., Shelby, Gastonia and other cities for work, so Everest jobs could help avoid commutes, Johnson says.
Michael Novick also is providing optimism and jobs in Forest City. His Miami-based CMI Enterprises is building a 150,000-square-foot plant that consolidates a site about 10 miles away in Cleveland County. The new plant will employ about 50, or more than double the current staff.
The company makes vinyl coatings used in boats, cars, stadium seats and other products. It is the first U.S. plant of its type to open in decades, Novick says. Many others have opened more recently in Asia, Mexico and South America.
CMI’s delivery time to U.S. customers will be cut to four weeks with the new plant, a third of the typical offshore pace. “When we told a handful of our major customers that we planned to build a plant in North Carolina, each was very enthusiastic.”
The company looked at sites in five other Southern states before choosing Rutherford County. “You can tell that [the county] wants you there,” says Novick, who co-founded the company in 1984. While attracting labor for factory work is a challenge, Novick says Forest City “is an old mill town and there are plenty of people looking for jobs. So we think it has a great labor force.”
Growing optimism is apparent in Forest City’s tree-lined downtown, where several restaurants and boutique shops have opened in the last year. More competition is slowing sales at downtown’s Smith Drug, which has served up hot dogs, grilled-cheese sandwiches and milkshakes since 1939. That is two years after the birth of Bob McNair, who grew up in Forest City, moved to Texas and made billions in the energy industry. He now owns the Houston Texans.
But Linda Cole, whose family has owned Smith Drug for about a dozen years, expects only a temporary lull. Bustling with browsers and coffee drinkers on a recent weekday morning, the drugstore-soda fountain also sells apparel,greeting cards and gifts. “A business consultant told my son-in-law that he should close the grill, but that’s what people really remember about this store,” she says, looming over the cash register. “People have been coming here for many years. They will come back.”
One hopes the same can be said for Forest City’s fortunes.