Economic growth in Charlotte and the Triangle, even in a pandemic, clicks along with a continuing string of expansions and relocations. Getting things moving in smaller, more remote counties is where the challenge really lies.
Chuck Heustess knows this well as the key economic developer in his native Bladen County since 1998. It’s the fourth-largest county in the state in size, but also one of the 10 most distressed with a high poverty rate, he says. About 32,000 people live in Bladen, little changed over the last 70 years. Unlike many eastern counties, its population has increased slightly over the last 20 years, for which Heustess’ group may deserve some credit.
Bladen is best known as the home of the 5,000-employee Smithfield Foods pork production plant in Tar Heel in the far northeastern part of the county. Another piece of notoriety is its history of election voting irregularities, which the Serial podcast group explained in a national series that launched earlier this month.
But the business story of Bladen is its continuing, successful effort to sustain the rural economy. Heustess recently won plaudits at a Golden LEAF Foundation board meeting earlier this year in which he described the county’s strategy for attracting business.
His organization has perhaps the best economic development name in the state: The Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial Inc., which he says “helps us keep our identity and attract grants. It has really helped us because when people see the name, they remember it.”
Over Heustess’ career, the organization has helped create 2,500 jobs with a variety of programs including buying and selling several buildings to new enterprises, renovating more than 20 commercial sites to spur development, two office parks and revolving loan funds. The projects have entailed more than $22.4 million in construction spending, with another $4.3 million in the pipeline, he says.
Bladen’s Bloomin’ is a public-private partnership with an emphasis on the private. While having close ties with county government, Heustess says his group reacts more quickly to opportunities and requests and has an easier time working with banks including BB&T, CresCom, First Bank and First Citizens. “We are like a private real estate developer. We don’t try to compete in the private market, but we are here to fill voids.”
Getting projects moving quickly is essential, he says. “Speed to the market is very important. Waiting for county government to hold a meeting in two weeks sometimes doesn’t work. We can be much more responsive.”
The group’s role is necessary given Bladen’s remote location, he says. “No one in their right mind would come to Bladen and build speculatively and try to lease space, especially with construction costs so high right now. So for decades nobody built a building.”
Liability and privacy also are factors in the group’s success, he says, with the public-private partnership providing a shield from potential lawsuits in rare instances of construction-related accidents. “Companies have much more of a comfort level dealing with a private group versus a public one that might require turning over their business plans,” he says.
With the economy improving, Heustess sees increasing demand from small manufacturers and others seeking 5,000 square foot to 30,000 square foott properties. Bladen doesn’t expect to land a major employer that requires a huge labor force, but rather focuses on attracting “singles that might turn into doubles or triples in the future.”
Heustess credits a string of grants from Golden LEAF for aiding his group. “They are absolutely hands down the best friend we work with when it comes to providing money and follow up,” he says.
One of his favorite successes is Bladen’s Bloomin’s role in working with Cape Fear Valley Health Care to renovate a site that housed a restaurant and video store and turn it into a primary care health center in Bladenboro. “It’s created jobs there and created referrals to Cape Fear’s hospital in Elizabethtown so it’s been a fantastic project,” he says.
Another time, Golden LEAF provided the first grant to help boost the cold-storage capacity for the area’s blueberry industry.
Heustess grew up in Bladen and was a marketing director for the region’s Council of Government unit before joining the economic development group in 1998. The Bladen’s Bloomin’ revolving loan was started in 1992, while its investments in real estate kicked off in 2001.
“We’ve had to be different if we were going to be successful,” he says. “If I was sitting on an interestate, I wouldn’t have these same opportunities.”