Saturday, July 13, 2024

Best in class honored by the N.C. Economic Development Association

The North Carolina Economic Development Association honored its top achievers at its annual conference last month in Wilmington. The award winners, representing both big cities and small towns, helped arrange significant deals that brought jobs and investments
to their communities.

Gary Lanier, director, Columbus County Economic Development Commission


Brewton, Alabama-based technology provider Provalus first considered Whiteville for an expansion in 2019, but chose Manning, South Carolina.

When Provalus looked again at expansion last year, company officials remembered how the eastern North Carolina town impressed them, including a well-attended job fair during the first go-round. “They didn’t forget about us in that recruitment process,” says Gary Lanier, economic development director for Columbus County since 2010.

Provalus expects to have as many as 300 workers in downtown Whiteville within five years. Locals call it the biggest jobs announcement for Columbus County in 40 years. It’s transformational for a county of about 50,000 people that has lost about 13% of its population since 2010, Lanier says.

“We’re constantly fighting to provide opportunities for our young people,” says Lanier.

Provalus began in 2017, providing full-service technology outsourcing services. Its six sites are in small towns in five states.

Columbus County is the state’s third-largest county by area and 51st in population. The community’s small-town character attracted Provalus, says Lanier.

Lanier helped convince the city of Whiteville and Columbus County to buy a downtown building for $697,000, which Provalus will occupy, says Kelly Stuart, a broker with Sun Coast Partners Commercial, who represented the sellers. Lanier says the deal took cooperation beyond local governments.

“Economic development is a team effort all day long,” he adds.


Dylan Finch, senior manager of business recruitment, EDPNC
Marvin Price, executive president, Greensboro Chamber








Marshall Aerospace said “yes” to Greensboro in April, promising to bring 240 jobs and a $50 million investment to establish a maintenance and engineering facility to support its contract work with military airplanes.

It had been 18 months since the company first approached the Greensboro Chamber in October 2021. The project had been won, lost and won again. Marshall Aerospace was unsure if North Carolina had the right aviation talent to fit its needs. Other cities, including Birmingham, Alabama, and St. Louis also sought the project.

Recruitment leaders, Chamber Executive Vice President Marvin Price and Dylan Finch, senior business recruitment manager at the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, exchanged a fist bump over lunch after the announcement.

“Sometimes with projects you’ve just got to stay patient and keep yourself in the game,” says Finch.

To soothe Marshall’s doubts about talent availability, Price and Finch brought in experts from North Carolina A&T State University, Guilford Technical Community College and Guilford Works. They also introduced Marshall officials to people from existing employers such as Honda Aircraft and HAECO Americas.

Marshall officials gained trust and came to feel that this deal was “only the start of a beautiful partnership,” says Calissa Holder, the Greensboro Chamber marketing manager.

Marshall officials also talked with Piedmont Triad International Airport Executive Director Kevin Baker. Price calls Baker the “secret sauce…He speaks their language. He’s an engineer. He can talk about airplanes. He geeks them out.”

Price joined the Greensboro Chamber in November 2020 after about four years with the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance. The Alabama native was the NCEDA Economic Developer of the Year in 2023. Finch grew up in Durham and is a 2015 graduate of  N.C. State University. He joined the EDPNC in October 2020 after working for almost four years in staff roles in the N.C. General Assembly.

Addition of UK-based Marshall builds upon Greensboro’s reputation as an aerospace hub of the South. In mid-June, Colorado-based Boom Supersonic celebrated completion of its $500 million Greensboro jet-assembly plant, which was announced in 2022.

“Maybe we’re not the aerospace capital of the South,” says Price. “Maybe we’re the transportation innovation capital of the South.”

Kevin Franklin, president, Randolph County Economic Development


Despite a job leading economic development in one of the state’s hottest counties and serving for more than 28 years as associate pastor at Faith Baptist Church in Ramseur, Kevin Franklin says he lives in anonymity.

“People have no idea of who I am or what I do,” says Franklin. “But when I drive by a parking lot
full of cars at a place where we have helped locate a business, it makes me happy.”

As president of Randolph County Economic Development, he helped recruit the largest economic development project in North Carolina history. In 2021, Toyota Battery Manufacturing North Carolina announced a $1.29 billion investment in Liberty, then expanded the project in 2022.

Last October, the Japanese automaker added $8 billion and 3,000 more jobs to the project,
bringing the total investment to $13.9 billion and about 5,100 jobs.

“I still sometimes can’t believe the level of investment they are making,” says Franklin, who moved to Randolph County in 1992 to teach high school history at a private Christian school. “I sometimes have to remind the county and city leaders that we’re not going to have $8.5 billion investments every year.”

Times weren’t always so good. In 2012,  CBS’ “60 Minutes” featured the county seat in a story titled “The Death and Life of Asheboro” that painted a dismal view of economic recovery from the Great Recession. Around that time, Franklin recalls, a textile mill had closed in Ramseur where he served as town administrator, putting hundreds of people out of work.

Franklin had worked on economic development in Ramseur and gone through training offered by the N.C. Rural Center. When Randolph County’s economic agency offered him a job in 2013,
he took it.  He became the group’s president in June 2019.

“A lot of the success we’ve had comes because there was a great foundation laid before I ever stepped into this role,” says Franklin. Those who work with Franklin describe him as someone with a passion for the community, who listens attentively and is unafraid to take on challenges.

“He doesn’t seek fame, but rather works tirelessly for the betterment of the community he holds dear,” wrote Greensboro Chamber executive Marvin Price, who nominated Franklin.

Elizabeth Underwood, workforce development manager, Lake Norman Economic Development


People may think Elizabeth Underwood always wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Melanie O’Connell Underwood has worked in economic development for 30-plus years, including the past eight with EDPNC.

But the Mooresville native wanted to put her communications and public relations training from UNC Charlotte in 2020 to work abroad with a large firm. She didn’t plan on having a “COVID graduation,” which put international travel and opportunities overseas on hold.

A friend of her mom’s at EDPNC suggested that Elizabeth consider a job with Beaufort County Economic Development on the N.C. coast. She worked almost a year there with existing industry, then returned to her home county in June 2021 to join Lake Norman Economic Development.

“I feel most successful when I go past a building where we have helped locate a business and see the parking lot full of cars with people working at high paying jobs,” says Underwood. Her work with preparing high school students for jobs led to the NCEDA naming her its innovator of the year.

Last summer, she managed the PIVOT program, which provided paid summer internships to 19 high school students. This summer, 80 students applied for the available 21 spots. The program teaches students soft skills and how to act on a job site, while introducing them to different industries.

“The whole point is to take away the barriers to employment,” says Underwood.

Underwood also chairs the NCEDA Emerging Executives, which helps mentor newcomers in economic development. She and Trey Cash, the economic development director for Greene County, started a podcast last year titled “The New Economic Developers on the Block” that has 2,000 downloads. The every-other-week podcast has interviews with  economic developers from across the state. Underwood starts a new job as director of Stanly County Economic Development in July.


Kelly Andrews, director, Pitt county Economic Devleopment
Page Castrodale, executive director, Cabarrus Economic Development








Page Castrodale was looking to do something new when she joined the Cabarrus County Economic Development in October 2018 to help existing industries. In December 2020, she became executive director after four months in an interim role. She credits her predecessor, Robert Carney, with including her in all facets of the group’s work.

Castrodale and her Cabarrus County team, including project manager Samantha Grass and business support manager Stephanie Burleson, have helped secure some of the state’s biggest economic wins.

In 2021, Red Bull and Rauch North America announced a $740 million investment that would bring more than 400 jobs to a “beverage campus” at the site of a former Philip Morris cigarette  plant. It was the largest economic development announcement in Cabarrus County history at the time. Construction hasn’t started at the site.

In 2022, Eli Lilly announced it would make a $1 billion investment at the former Philip Morris site, which the Indianapolis-based company has since doubled to $2 billion. The company plans to hire more than 600 workers to produce weight-loss and diabetic drugs at the site. Lilly says it will begin production later this year.

Castrodale says her team is focused on making Cabarrus County a better place to live through better paying jobs for residents. “We see it as a service to our community,”
she says.

Average wages in Cabarrus County have increased nearly 19% over the past four years, from $41,255 in 2021 to $49,058 now, reflecting new employers and competition for labor.

Castrodale grew up in Youngsville in Franklin County. She met her husband, Andrew, while both were students at UNC Chapel Hill in the mid 2000s. They returned to his home county in 2017 after he left military service.

The couple have three boys and a girl who range in age from 6 to 12. “I go home at the end of the day and start my second shift,” she says.

Kelly Andrews was born in Pitt County, grew up about 15 miles north of Greenville in Bethel, and has worked 18 years to bring economic development to her community.

Economic developers don’t have to be from their hometowns, but Andrews says it
adds motivation.

“For me, it’s home. And not only do I get the professional satisfaction, but also the personal satisfaction because this is my home,” she says. “I’m a small town girl from a town of 1,500 people that had one stoplight, that’s now a flashing light. I want to help all of the communities in Pitt County thrive.”

Andrews graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 1994 with a business degree and earned an MBA from East Carolina University in 1998. She joined Pitt County Economic Development in 2006 and was named director in 2020.

In April, Vietnam-based Boviet Solar announced it would invest $294 million and create 908 jobs to make solar panels in Greenville. It’s the Chinese-owned company’s first North America plant.

The announcement represents only part of the story. “There’s so much work that goes on before the announcement, under the surface,” she says. That work includes finding space for the company and showing officials the community college can help train its workers.

“We have a lot of partners here that are really behind championing the right kind of growth,” she says. “Businesses are starting to see the potential of Pitt County.”


Katherine Thomas, vice president, Alfred Williams & Co.


One of Katherine Thomas’ skills can only be described as being a “great connector,” says Joanna Helms, the economic development director for the town of Apex.

“She has an uncanny way of knowing when two people that she knows, that do not know each other, need to meet and get to know one another,” says Helms, who credits Thomas with some of her best professional connections.

As president this year of the 900-member N.C. Economic Development Association, Helms picked Thomas as a recipient of the
President’s Award.

Thomas worked in economic development roles for about 30 years with Raleigh-based Progress Energy, leaving in 2012 as director of community relations and economic development a few months after the company’s merger with Duke Energy. She joined Alfred Williams & Co. in 2013, and a year later became vice president of business development and marketing of the interior design company for businesses and office spaces.

At Progress, Thomas she “convened a women in economic development” conference well before such events became common.

Thomas was born in Barnwell, South Carolina, but grew up in Gastonia and is a graduate of Ashbrook High School. She has a business degree from Meredith College. She says she knew she wanted to work in economic development early on.

“It was an opportunity to make a difference statewide,” says Thomas. “When you think about it, the creation and retention of jobs is one of the best ways to help a community.”

While working for Progress, Thomas was on the NCEDA board for seven years and was president in 2009-10.

Mary Lesa Pegg, project manager, EDPNC


Economic developers take many paths toward their careers, but often talk among themselves that only a few ever studied the profession in college, says Mary Lesa Pegg, a project manager for the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina.

Last year, Pegg began considering how to introduce college students to potential economic development jobs. She leveraged her network to get more than two dozen professionals in construction, utilities, local government and other economic developers to lead discussions at a one-day seminar in Greensboro.

The North Carolina Economic Development Career Trek in February attracted about 60 college students, mostly from UNC Charlotte, UNC Greensboro and N.C. A&T State University. “I did not see a student on their phone all day,” says Pegg.

Pegg grew up in Winston-Salem and has a bachelor’s degree from East Carolina University
and two master’s degrees from UNC Greensboro. She worked for the Greensboro school for seven years before joining EDPNC in 2020. Helping put people to work in well-paying jobs is “what gets me out of bed every morning,” she says.

In June, Pegg joined Norfolk Southern as an industrial development manager, where she will focus on economic development projects related to rail lines. She will be based in Raleigh and remain active with NCEDA.

Related Articles