Saturday, June 15, 2024

Bus tour travels past state’s biggest economic wins

I spent a day last week with a group made up mostly of local economic developers from around the state. They are enrolled in the NC Certified Economic Developer Program offered by East Carolina University’s Economic Development Academy. The two-day course last week was about how to recruit companies to build new plants. I was there for Day One.

The year-long curriculum, offered in partnership with the NC Economic Development Association, includes seven courses and a capstone project. Some folks just take a course or two; the entire program looks pretty rigorous, but formal training is a good idea if you want to do this for a career. The course last week was on the road, taught in Sanford, at Central Carolina Community College.

Bob Joyce

The instructors were veteran economic developers, including Bob Joyce with the Sanford Area Growth Alliance in Lee County and Michael Smith of Chatham County next door. Also sharing wisdom with the students was Charles Hayes, an academy senior fellow who used to run the Research Triangle Regional Partnership and helped develop the four-year-old program. 

Chatham and Lee are part of the new economic geography of North Carolina, the 120-mile corridor from the Triad to Fayetteville, the Carolina Core.

Some of the biggest projects in the state are in this corridor – Boom Supersonic in Greensboro, the Toyota battery plant in Randolph County, and the two Chatham mega-site projects –  the Wolfspeed silicon carbide materials plant in Siler City and the VinFast electric vehicle plant in Moncure. These four plants alone represent around $13 billion in planned investment and 13,000 manufacturing jobs. 

Part of the program last week was a bus tour of key Sanford and Chatham economic development sites, such as Central Carolina Enterprise Park on the outskirts of Sanford.

Having available industrial sites and buildings is crucial, because recruited companies want to move quickly. Central Carolina Enterprise Park, where a succession of buildings have been quickly filled with major employers, is an example of how private-public partnerships work.

Michael Smith

“Building on the left is Astellas. First shell building in the park,” said Smith, as the bus made its way. “A gene therapy operation from Northern California. Up on the hill is Abzena, another gene therapy operation.”  

A private investment group purchased 250 acres off U.S. 1. Lee County built the roads. Sanford put in utilities, and Samet Corp. of Greensboro put up buildings, with a guarantee that the city and county would lease for two years if they didn’t sell. “We’re on building number five,” said Joyce. “We’ve never had to pay a month’s worth of rent. We’ve always sold them as soon as they’re finished.”

Having new buildings available helps recruit companies even if they ultimately pick another site in a county. It gets prospects in the door. It also helps if the local economic developer really knows what else is available. That was the story behind Bharat Forge Aluminum coming to Sanford, said Smith, who worked with Joyce before taking the Chatham job in 2020.

The site in the industrial park didn’t work for Bharat. But, Smith said, Joyce knew about another site nearby that had come on the market and they were able to get it under option.

“Once they were here and realized this is a good place, we were able to find a better site for them, more suited for them, and they’re here now,” said Smith. “Having that shell building got that company into Lee County to look.”

The 540 Loop

The tour’s next stop was the Raleigh Executive Jetport, in Lee County, a/k/a Raleigh Exec, about five miles up U.S. 1 from Sanford, and about two miles from the VinFast site in Chatham, across the river. The name is significant. With a 6,500-foot runway and around 230 planes, the airport is a 15-20 minute drive up U.S. 1 to the Interstate/NC 540 Outer Loop around Raleigh

Counties on the edge of urban centers – like Raleigh-Durham – market their proximity to these cities. The outer counties share a big asset – a lot of open land – and because of improved road networks they are close enough.

That explains the economic significance of the I-540 Outer Loop to the counties around Raleigh-Durham and into the Carolina Core. The completion of 540 from Apex to Garner soon will be a big deal, and finishing the Loop from Garner to Knightdale in eastern Wake County by 2030 will make the Loop a 69-mile circle connected to interstate-grade roads in every direction. That could make more workers available, as once-unlikely commutes become possible.

Marketing access to Raleigh extends to how Lee and Chatham talk about U.S. 1. Corporate prospects want to be near an interstate. As we were riding to the airport on U.S. 1, Smith said: “As you can see, this is clearly an interstate. You can see most people driving on this road are driving 75 miles an hour.  And so we actually, with our marketing material here, we changed the logo on anything we send out and have U.S. 1 as a red, white and blue shield.”

A lesson for the students on the bus from Smith. Whether it’s what you call the airport or how you label your big highway, “However you can market your region, market your region.”

Regional cooperation

The airport, which got a new terminal building in 2019, is a first-rate front door for the Lee and Chatham economic development efforts. But more than that, it is a symbol of how counties work together to land big projects. “It is important to have good relations with neighbors, because you never know what assets can be shared,” said Smith.

 Every big project is going to rely on workers from many counties.

“The [NC] Department of Commerce created a map for us that showed that within 60 minutes of where we’re standing are 22 counties,” said Smith. “And so when the General Assembly and the governor are trying to figure out who they want to help . . .  a project [like VinFast] isn’t just Chatham County. It’s multiple counties.”

And it’s not just workers. The 7,500-job VinFast project just inside Chatham at the Triangle Innovation Point Megasite, will get water and sewer from Sanford in Lee. The Wolfspeed plant going up at the Chatham-Siler City Advanced Manufacturing Site will get water from Asheboro and sewer from Ramseur, two Randolph County towns. The new Apex Gateway Park on U.S. 64, barely inside Chatham, will get water and sewer from Apex in Wake County. And at the new training facility, the Moore Center at the community college in Sanford, VinFast has 30,000 square feet reserved, because the college serves a three-county region – Chatham, Harnett and Lee.

Lucky Room

We were seated in a conference room at the airport, what Smith calls “our lucky room.”

It was in this conference room where he first met with VinFast representatives. This was also where he first met with Wolfspeed about building its plant in Chatham instead of New York state.

The VinFast and Wolfspeed projects are two of the wins – like Toyota and Boom – that have helped turn the Carolina Core from a concept into reality. One part of this will be the transformation of U.S. 421 into Interstate 685, an advanced manufacturing corridor from Greensboro down to I-95 and the Fayetteville area, anchored by Fort Bragg, the largest military base by population in the country.

A beneficiary of this corridor will be a different type of project – the residential-commercial Chatham Park community between Jordan Lake and Pittsboro, which will cover 8,500 acres when it is built out. It will cover more land area than Research Triangle Park, Smith noted, by way of making a point, because they are very different things. He also used RTP as an example of how to think about Chatham’s central location. At the western end of the 710-square mile county, the Wolfspeed site is about 15 minutes away from the Toyota site in Liberty, itself near Greensboro. In the northeastern-most corner of Chatham, you can walk to the Wake County part of RTP.

Back on the bus

We toured the site where VinFast is now clearing land. Next door, a FedEx distribution center is getting ready to open. The bus then drove over to Chatham Park for lunch and a presentation by one of the developers, Julian “Bubba” Rawl, who, with his Preston Development partner Tim Smith and SAS CEO James Goodnight have shaped Cary, North Raleigh and now the east side of Chatham.

Julian "Bubba" Rawl
Julian “Bubba” Rawl

Chatham Park is the largest residential-commercial project on the East Coast, and represents 20 years of land acquisition and planning. When all that started, North Carolina was just getting focused on mega-sites – massive, fully assembled tracts with utilities, power, zoning and road access and incentives –  to recruit big manufacturers. Rawl pointed to a map showing the projects that now run between Sanford and Greensboro. “We knew they were in play when we started, but really, it was a leap of faith.”

But assembling the 160 parcels for Chatham Park required the same kind of focus and determination that it has taken to assemble the mega-sites that put North Carolina in the game for large industrial projects. And it helps recruit companies to the Carolina Core to have a large emerging community like Chatham Park, which will have 25,000 homes and 60,000 residents when it is built out over the next 20 years. Chatham County today has around 80,000 residents. 

In the woods

Before the day was out, we would look at dirt being moved at the Wolfspeed site. Smith is glad they are building at the front of the property so the factory would be visible from U.S. 64.

That’s one of the things about projects, is that you can get a lot of them but because they go on large pieces of land, all that activity can be hard to see from the road.

“One of the challenges we’ve had over time is still, today . . . when you drive here from Raleigh, you see freeway, you see a bunch of woods, and you’re like, where am I? I’m out in the woods. Nothing’s here.

“And so we’ve had to create a lot of images to show and remind people either what’s here now, or what’s about to come.”


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