Alamance benefits from Triangle growth, but small biz woes persist

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Long-time Triangle developer Jim Anthony recently noted that the Alamance County communities of Graham, Mebane and Burlington were “blowing up” with new housing.

I thought I would check to see how things were going with Peter Bishop, economic development director for Burlington, the county’s biggest municipality.

The housing market is doing fine. Bishop, who ran economic development in Currituck County for nine years, moved to Burlington four years ago, and he and his family live in a subdivision on the west side of town.

“I’ve had unsolicited phone calls to me, and real estate agents coming to my door, asking if I wanted to sell my home,” he said.  “Just for fun,” he looked at buying a house closer to the office and downtown Burlington, but “you just can’t find a home.  And the ones you do find are gone in a week.”

Peter Bishop

As for the rest of the Burlington area economy, the situation, as in many North Carolina communities, is mixed.

“Well, I guess it depends on where you’re sitting,” said Bishop. “If you’re in the leisure and hospitality industry, they don’t look very good. But if you’re in logistics or fulfillment or manufacturing, or even some home improvement and contracting, those have been fantastic.”

Alamance, located on the Interstate 40-85 corridor between the Triangle and the Triad, was sitting on a 3.6% unemployment rate in February, seasonally unadjusted. Then in mid-March came the pandemic shutdowns.

In April, county unemployment jumped to 12.8%.  It dipped as low as 6.6% in August, but then ticked up to 6.8% in September.

“The place where I used to play indoor soccer, it officially announced it is shutting down for good last week because they couldn’t hold any indoor recreation,” said Bishop. “There are things from normal life that you can’t do.”

On a brighter note, downtown Burlington has had six new businesses announce they’re coming in the last six months – including several bars and a food hall with a commissary kitchen.

“So, nightlife and entertainment – once COVID has wrapped up – is going to be popping here in downtown Burlington,” said Bishop.

Alamance has seen its population grow by nearly 60% since 1990, fueled by companies such as the county’s largest private employer, LabCorp, which has been a leader in COVID testing. LabCorp’s presence, and Alamance Community College’s strong biotechnology program, are reasons to expect more life sciences growth in the Burlington area. Bishop looks at Johnston County, where Novo Nordisk and Grifols and a similar community college effort have shown how biotech has flourished in North Carolina beyond the big urban counties and Research Triangle Park.

Until the pandemic recedes, Bishop and other economic developers are trying to help cash-short small businesses survive. This year, Alamance has lost 6,400 jobs, and nearly half of those were in leisure and hospitality. The city is tapping Community Development Block Grant funds, and working with businesses to get access to city and county loans.

“We’re doing everything we can with the resources that we have to support businesses that aren’t doing as well, and working double-time to respond to the new inquiries and new business that’s happening,” he said.

“I think we’re all a little apprehensive to see where the light is at the end of the tunnel,” said Bishop, “and we can start moving forward with business as usual, whatever that looks like.”

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