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Saturday, July 13, 2024

Community close up: The Piedmont Triad and Carolina Core

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••• SPONSORED SECTION •••

Lexington, county seat of Davidson County, is a town of 20,000 at the crossroads of U.S. 64 and Interstate 85, halfway between Salisbury and Thomasville, in the middle of the state. It has a walkable downtown, half-dozen wineries, the Bob Timberlake gallery, family-friendly parks and a nickname – Barbecue Capital of the World. Its annual October barbecue festival lures enough visitors to double the town population.

But lately Lexington has been discovered by more than food enthusiasts.

In April, steel-production company Nucor announced its next micro mill plant, a $350 million manufacturing project intended to create 180 jobs with annual wages of $99,066, will be built just east of town on U.S. 64, about three miles from a 761-acre plot rezoned in April for industrial use.

Within Lexington city limits, Siemens Mobility’s $220 million railcar factory will create 500 jobs at a 200-acre lot in the Lexington Industrial Park on Brown Street.

“They’re completing utility permits and are on track for campus completion by March 2025,” says Jason Martin, Davidson’s assistant county manager, of the Siemens site. “It’s great for the county and the city of Lexington, because it’s a strong capital investment.
We pride ourselves on a low tax rate, and that helps. Plus the wages will be over the county average.”

Nucor and Siemens join a lengthy list of manufacturers settling in the N.C. Triad, a 12-county group of Alamance, Caswell, Davidson, Davie, Forsyth, Guilford, Montgomery, Randolph, Rockingham, Stokes, Surry and Yadkin with a midsection of Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem sewn together by a half-dozen crisscrossing highways.

Spanning the Triad like a landlocked peninsula, the Carolina Core is a 120-mile-long industry-saturated swath of the Piedmont from Surry and Yadkin counties in the west to Cumberland, Sampson and Johnston in the east. Inside, 2 million people live among industrial tracts covering 7,200-plus acres of certified land.

“We’re at a time when the county and all its municipalities are in harmony,” Martin says. “There are a lot of positives.”

“We like to tout ourselves as the third economic engine for North Carolina,” says Mike Fox, president of the Piedmont Triad Partnership, an economic development influencer in Greensboro. “The Charlotte region has its success and its own niche. The Raleigh area has been enormously successful. In order for North Carolina to prosper, you have to have more than two areas. That’s not to say Asheville and Wilmington aren’t doing well. One of the best things about the Core is the choices you have and the diversity in where you can live, work and play.”

The Triad and Core boast a myriad of tourism attractions, a fistful of four-year universities and community colleges, and a city, High Point, that is the first Certified Autism Destination on the East Coast accredited by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards.

Its Piedmont Triad International airport has a $9.3 billion economic impact, aerospace cluster and a plane-in-the-making that will dash through the stratosphere at 1,304 mph.

There’s baseball’s High Point Rockers, of the South Division of the Atlantic League, and professional soccer, Carolina Core FC.

There’s a Pottery Tour in Seagrove, in Randolph County, that boasts 50 pottery shops; and the Uwharrie National Forest, in Montgomery County, with 50,000 acres of serenity, mountain biking and horseback rides.

“With a growing tourism economy, the county’s natural beauty shines with the Uwharrie National Forest, Tillery and Badin lakes, offering residents and visitors plentiful outdoor recreation and scenic views,” says county economic development director Savannah Heath. “The charm of small-town living contributes to the area’s exceptional quality of life.”

Infrastructure – pavement – is imperative to Core counties. Interstate 40 and U.S. 421 meander from Winston-Salem to Greensboro to Sanford and Dunn, with the Greensboro-to-Sanford segment soon to be designated Future I-685. From Winston-Salem westward to Yadkinville, 421 could evolve into Interstate 777.

“Having I-777 in ‘future interstate status’ allows your local economic development professional to appeal for more projects. Many companies don’t have to be right on the interstate; they say they have to be within 10 miles,” Fox says. “And if you can’t provide that, you may be eliminated.”

Last fall, leaders gathered to address another mission: housing. With major incoming industries committed, the PTP initiated a study to focus on “which type of housing can go where,” according to a report.

“First and foremost,” High Point University President Nido Qubein says, “our goal is to ensure that people acknowledge this is a great place to live, a wonderful place to build a business and a terrific place to raise a family.”

The Partnership
The Piedmont Triad Partnership encourages blending assets of education, infrastructure and buildable land with a business community focused on job generators. Nineteen counties market the Core brand to attract business.

“The Partnership has been a wonderful fellowship of focused leaders across the region,” says Qubein, who is one of three co-chairs. “We have seen megasites come to be, and they have attracted companies like the Toyota battery plant (5,100 jobs in Randolph County) and created an enormous number of jobs.”

Qubein is a former board member of Piedmont Triad International Airport, which holds multiple onsite aerospace companies and manufacturers in addition to having nationwide flights through four major airlines.

“We brought FedEx there (in 2003). Today that looks like a small advancement,” Qubein says. “Now, we’ve advanced to a much higher level with the megasites and can be sure that there are 50,000, 100,000 positions that can be created with reasonable amounts
of compensation.”

Major investments and announcements are, often, credited to the diligence of individual counties’ EDCs, Fox says. “We meet with them monthly to promote the brand, which is the Core, and we celebrate all the victories. We do get involved in projects when they’re being recruited, because a CEO might say, ‘Hey, do you have a person we can talk to about what it’s like to run a business in this area?’ So, we work to provide that.”

Exploring the Core
When “Carolina Core” became a term in 2018, Fox’s predecessor Stan Kelly expressed a goal of 50,000 office and industrial jobs in 20 years. Success – and money in the billions – came fast.

The PTP announced at the end of April that its 50,000-job milestone has been met – with 50,300. “We knew we were close last year,” Fox says, “so we raised the goal to 100,000 by 2038. We doubled our goal.

“We’ve also been very blessed in that Duke Energy has been a great partner to work with in that they have an excellent grid and can provide for these companies as well.”

The biggest names announced in the megasite game:

• Toyota battery: $13.9 billion in an increasing presence at the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite; 5,100 jobs.

• Wolfspeed: 1,800 jobs, $5 billion investment at Chatham-Siler City.

• VinFast: $4 billion investment at Triangle Innovation Point; 7,500 jobs.

• Boom Supersonic ($500 million) and Marshall Aerospace ($50 million) are constructing facilities at Piedmont Triad International Airport and intend to hire 2,400 and 243, respectively.

• Chatham-Siler City has 1,400 acres remaining, and the Person County Mega Park just over Caswell’s eastern side has 1,350 acres ready to develop.

“We see companies that don’t care if they’re in Lexington, or out in Davidson County; they care about the site and their workforce,” Fox says. “So realizing that has allowed our elected officials and our government to see a regional approach, and that brings you strength. It’s a collaboration, working with the megasites and landing these big projects and the smaller ones that we get literally every single week.”

Part of the PTP’s housing study addresses neighborhood needs throughout its territory.

“Some like a downtown environment, others like a traditional neighborhood, and some like a small town, like Madison in Rockingham County,” Fox says, “and they can say ‘Hey, my job is in Winston-Salem, but I can get there in 25 minutes.’ You can have choices; you can have 40 acres with horses and still be able to have a quick drive to work.”

“Despite its rural nature, Montgomery County is investing heavily in infrastructure, making it a prime location at the heart of North Carolina, with easy access to major metropolitan areas,” Heath says. “The county’s Economic Development department is focusing on developing pad-ready sites featuring rail access, capitalizing on its interstate access on its eastern portion (I-73/I-74), and enhancing its appeal to businesses seeking convenience and connectivity.”

Education

Thirty community colleges and universities fill the Triad, pairing resources with major industries, CTE training and helping promote host towns and counties.

High Point’s Qubein has business partnerships in banking, real estate, publishing and retail. His approach at HPU is to prepare students for post-college careers, both personally and professionally. “Our values are ‘God, family, country’ and what makes it special is our focus on life skills. That’s not branding; it’s the mission in every major, every department, and every school has national leaders in the field who come to guide and mentor our students,” he says. “We’ve had chairs of the board at AT&T, founders of Apple, of Netflix, all are our Innovators in Residence, so our students are able to get the ammunition they need to understand life and the applications that are involved.”

Newly added programs at HPU include degrees in health and wellness, oral health, applied physics and women’s leadership development. The Workman School of Dental Medicine opens this fall offering a doctor of dental medicine degree. The only private dental school in North Carolina, it already has more than 1,000 applications. HPU will begin accepting applications Sept. 1 for its School of Law; its planned School of Optometry will be the 10th school established since Qubein became president in 2005. HPU has 14 academic schools.

Called “The Premier Life Skills University,” the campus since 2005 has expanded from 91 acres to 560 and from 18 to 128 buildings, a $3 billion transformation. Qubein, who leads a freshman Life Skills course, says the university has welcomed $800 million in philanthropy, $320 million of it in the last 15 months.

“We have relationships with 4,800 organizations where we can guarantee each student an internship, and we have an amazing career services organization that is a byproduct of the extensive research we did,” he says.

HPU, he says, has “close to a $1 billion economic impact” on the city of High Point.

“The city of High Point is a remarkable story. The city, the business leaders and the Chamber of Commerce have always come together, and they’ve said it’s time to build a better future for our city,” he says. “And that, we are doing, in tremendous amounts.”

In Troy, Montgomery County’s two public high schools – Montgomery Central and the Early College High School – are located at the community college campus.

“Montgomery County’s commitment to education is evident in its innovative approach, consolidating high schools to create a state-of-the-art high school conveniently located on Montgomery Community College’s campus,” Heath says. “This shared campus includes a Career Technical Education building and Montgomery Early College, providing students unparalleled access to college and CTE classes and pathways, paving the county’s way to a skilled workforce.”

Aerospace
The PTI campus has about 9,000 employees – 8,000 in jobs not related to terminal operations and commercial service aircraft.

Expansion continues. “We’re in the design phase of a terminal modernization project that will include heavy renovations and reconstruction of the terminal,” says Executive Director Kevin Baker of PTI’s three-and-half-year upfit. “There will be growing pains, but it’s not going to interrupt flights.”

PTI has about 900 ready-to-build acres remaining in its aerospace cluster of HAECO Americas, Honda Aircraft, Cessna and VSE Corp. Baker says Boom Supersonic’s facility construction should be complete in a few months, and Marshall Aerospace has a
January target.

“Our deal is to get them to market faster,” Baker says. “If we didn’t have the grading done, we’d still be moving dirt. We have sites ready to go, and that puts us in a good competitive position.”

Tourism
High Point hosts more than 815,000 direct visitors annually, says Melody Burnett, president of the Visit High Point CVB. The High Point Market furniture extravaganza brings an estimated 75,000 home furnishings professionals to town twice a year. And High Point University attracts more than 100,000 annual visitors for events such as orientation and graduation, family weekends, Presidential Scholar Weekend and Big South Conference sports.

“High Point has a town-and-gown relationship with HPU,” Burnett says. “Our local businesses, especially in the hospitality sector, understand the value in aligning their products and services with the standards set in place connecting those visitors to great experiences while in town. HPU continues to set the bar high, enhancing High Point’s abilities to secure more visitors through educational, sports and social events on campus.”

The city’s overnight and day-trip guests, Burnett says, “enjoy exploring the area including our N.C. Visitor Attraction of the Year, the Nido & Mariana Qubein Children’s Museum, and our Labor Day Weekend tradition, the John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival. We are hyper focused on our guest experience, elevating the home furnishings and
design branding, generating consumer traffic and awareness to our new downtown,
and positioning our mission as a community of shared values that benefits visitors and residents.”

Being a Certified Autism Destination is new. Mesa, Arizona, is the only other U.S. city that can claim certification. The purpose is to make venues comfortable and welcoming for people with autism. “Currently, there are no venues outside the city participating, but there have been some exploratory conversations with some neighboring partners,” says Nancy Bowman, Visit High Point’s vice president of branding. “(Venues) have been working diligently to create programming, events, sensory guides and additional resources to ensure autistic visitors not only feel welcome but have time to prepare for what they are getting ready to experience.

“We are leveraging our mission as a community with shared values to drive the visitor economy, support local businesses, improve quality of life for our residents and lift up our destination’s branding of being kind and inclusive, while enhancing High Point’s visibility as a destination to live, work and play.”

Package deal
“I think our greatest achievement (at the PTP) is just bringing the region together. And that’s occurred in the last 10 years,” Fox says. “Our folks work collaboratively and cooperatively to make this a great place to live, and bring jobs. So, building this regional community and the brand of the Carolina Core has been our most remarkable contribution.”

Adds Qubein: “The Triad really is the giant that has been awakened recently. It’s an exciting time in the Core, and in the Triad, because everyone is excited about the potential that lies ahead.”

— Kathy Blake is a writer from eastern North Carolina.

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