Sunday, April 14, 2024

Community close up: Cabarrus County, racing to go

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New investments, downtown development and entrepreneurship bolster Cabarrus County.


Downtown Concord, the county seat of Cabarrus County, is humming with activity these days. 

“The entire downtown is under construction. There isn’t a block that doesn’t have a renovation project, and our location is the epicenter of it,”
says Peter Marsh, founding partner and board member of Flywheel Foundation, which is a catalyst for much of
what’s happening. 

The foundation opened a 20,000-square-foot co-working space called the Cabarrus Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in 2021 to support startups, solo entrepreneurs and remote employees wanting a collaborative office. The space is an economic-development accelerator that supports inception-stage and growth-stage startups with a support system of mentors and networking resources.

The Cabarrus Center also houses the Chamber of Commerce, the county’s Economic Development Corporation and the Small Business Center linked with Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. With many rentable workspaces and meeting rooms, this creative space has enhanced business opportunities in Cabarrus as well as spurred downtown growth.

“Since [the center] opened, there have been four or five restaurant starts, more bars, it’s like night and day. And it’s not done yet,” Marsh says.

In February 2022, EDC executive director Page Castrodale hosted Economic Development 101 at the center. It was one of several informal, public information meetings to explain the development group’s work and its availability to county residents.

“The Cabarrus EDC makes a measurable impact on individuals and families through program partnerships for local startups, support of existing businesses and recruitment of new industry,” Castrodale says. “Often, people think the EDC is the man behind the curtain controlling the almighty Oz with buttons and levers. The reality is the buttons we push and the levers we pull are all about fostering collaboration in our community so that businesses of all sizes can grow and residents can have a better quality of life. Economic Development 101 is an opportunity for us to pull the curtain back and show people what we are doing for them and for the community.”

Cabarrus has several components to fuel its economic development. It is a growing hub for life sciences and healthcare, with investments from name-brand companies such as Eli Lilly  & Co., which is investing $1 billion at an 800,000-square-foot campus at The Grounds at Concord. New industrial and business parks are opening in Cabarrus, including an NCDOT rail logistics center.

Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord has long been a draw for thousands of visitors as well as motorsport companies. Hendrick Motorsports recently announced it’s expanding its presence with a new 55,000-square-foot advanced manufacturing facility that will cost $14.5 million to build and create 50 jobs.

Castrodale is talking with several other companies eyeing locations in Cabarrus County.

“I think the county is attractive for a number of reasons, and we see a lot of relocations to this area,” she says. “But we’re only as strong as the product we have to support.”

The North Carolina Research Campus is gaining new energy with Insite Properties acquiring much of the adjoining land. Several universities have invested heavily in the campus.

Cabarrus County’s largest financial commitment came in January 2022 when global healthcare and biopharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly announced its $1 billion investment for an 800,000-square-foot, five-building campus at The Grounds at Concord, a 2,000-acre industrial site four miles from Interstate 85 and 30 minutes from Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

Indianapolis-based Lilly, which has large plants in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, cited the local labor force, educational resources and transportation infrastructure as components offered by Cabarrus that landed the deal.

Lilly conducted a global evaluation to determine the location for these sites, taking into account a variety of factors, including talent base and government policies that encourage innovation. Concord’s local labor force has extensive experience with manufacturing and is in close proximity to colleges and universities with strong STEM programs,” a Lilly spokesperson says. “The facility in Concord, in combination with our site in Research Triangle Park, will create a cluster of manufacturing facilities, allowing us to speed the delivery of medicines to patients, increase Lilly’s brand recognition within the state of North Carolina, strengthen university and government relationships and diversify our growing presence in the state.

The new manufacturing site in Concord will use the latest technology to manufacture parenteral [injectable] products and devices, including medicines in Eli Lilly’s diabetes portfolio and various other medications. The Concord campus will include medication production, device assembly and packaging. It will utilize cutting-edge  automation, robotics and data analytics to optimize output and efficiency, according to the company. 

“The state-of-the-art technology will also be applied to minimize the environmental impact of the site, which is consistent with our 2030 environmental goals,” the spokesperson says.

The project is “transforming our community” according to Castrodale. 

“Not just because of the investment but because of the quality of jobs and type of corporate citizens [Eli Lilly] is proving to be,” she says. “They’re partnering with a lot of nonprofits and school systems, and they’re a great example for a lot of future employees.”

The spokesperson says Lilly has established partnerships with Rowan- Cabarrus Community College, UNC Charlotte, the North Carolina Manufacturing Institute and others to provide training.

The company expects to create 600 permanent jobs, according to a release. An estimated 500 people are involved in the project construction.

“We are looking for operations technicians, engineers, scientists, quality assurance/quality control and several business support functions,” the spokesperson says. “Hiring started shortly after our groundbreaking in June 2022 and has ramped up significantly. If anyone is interested in exploring opportunities with us, they should visit and search for available openings at our Concord location.”

The North Carolina Research Campus is also making a big impact on Cabarrus and the surrounding area. Located in downtown Kannapolis at the northern edge of the county, the campus is a 350-acre research community where staff from eight universities and other collaborators work to develop nutritious crops, healthy foods, medical applications and health-related products.

The campus has created more than 1,000 jobs in focus areas such as phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables, exercise physiology, nutrition and population-based genetics studies. The latter involves studying how food, lifestyle choices and environment affect the likelihood of cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Scientists at the campus’ university sites have received more than $44 million in awards during the past fiscal year.

“Each of the universities represented here specializes in a segment of nutrition or disease prevention,” says Kannapolis communications director Annette Privette Keller. “Appalachian State specializes in healthy eating and exercise, N.C. State focuses on agricultural and plant research and Duke has received grants for studies in which they look at people over time and can see trends that help the next generation.”

Duke has 14,000 volunteers in a long-range study of biomarkers that influence health and disease.

The campus also houses a North Carolina A&T State University contingent that focuses on fruits and vegetables preservation and safety. The N.C. Central arm studies hematopoietic disease and cancer, while the UNC Chapel Hill entity studies precision nutrition, chronic disease and aging. The UNC Charlotte arm focuses on computer science and data analysis of biological questions and UNC Greensboro studies liver disease and diabetes.

The campus’ Food Innovation Lab opened in 2019 to assist entrepreneurs and food companies with product development, packaging and research.

The collection of universities is producing impactful results, as well as drawing more interest in Cabarrus County.

Last September, Charlotte-based Insite Properties announced plans to invest $500 million for the acquisition of 236 acres surrounding the Research Campus. Its development will include 800,000-square-feet of office, research and medical space, 47,000-square-feet of commercial and retail development and 1,200 residential units and laboratories and medical office buildings.

“They have not built yet but are working on the master plan and what makes sense, being adjacent to and on the campus,” says Keller. “They’re going through the approval process with the city.”

“The Research Campus is one of the state’s best-kept secrets in a lot of ways,” she adds. “You have prestigious universities in the state collaborating and researching areas that impact everybody in the world. So many unique things they’ve discovered, we’ll look back on in five or 10 years and say, ‘Wow, they discovered that and now it’s being put into action.’ It’s really amazing.”

The Health Equity Innovation Challenge is an unusual project helmed by both Flywheel and Atrium Health. It is a business competition in which organizations present ideas to combat disparities in healthcare access and are rewarded with funding to pursue their plans. The focus mostly is on population segments in vulnerable communities with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level, where social drivers inhibit the ability to obtain care.

“So the Health Equity Challenge is a project that connects all the dots. It would be impossible without the right location, and Atrium has a location in Cabarrus,” says Flywheel’s Marsh. “It’s interesting to see the amount of medical students who are entering the profession of care-giving tasks, or working on clinical trials where certain populations are under-represented. All of the companies [in the challenge] are amazing.”

Top left – Flywheel Café at the Cabarrus Center; Top right – J.King Guitar founder, Jack King, graduated from the Cabarrus Center’s Retail Lab Boot Camp; Bottom – Advisory board members responsible for the Flywheel Foundation’s Health Equity Innovation Challenge.

More than 100 entities applied to the challenge. The five winners address health needs in a variety of new ways.

CareYaya Health Technologies in Durham connects families needing low-cost caregivers with doctor-approved medical students.

CliniSpan Health in the Triad focuses on increasing the representation of people of color through targeted recruitment methods in health studies and clinical research.

F.E.L.K. After School serves K-6 students in Salisbury with affordable after-school care and a curriculum focused on core principles including personal responsibility, ethics and financial literacy.

Nutrible, based in St. Louis, is a web app that doctors and patients use to deliver medically-tailored meals and groceries from multiple vendors directly to patients at home, paid for by health plans and federal programs.

ZABS Place in Charlotte is a destination for young adults with developmental differences interested in having a job but unsure of how to get one. The company operates a thrift store for training and revenue.

The first phase of the project is June 5 to Sept. 1. “During that [accelerator program] time period we will be matching them up with customers and subject-matter experts and mentors who will accelerate the pace of their business. Then they enter an incubation period when a team of resource providers will be formalized to work with the companies over an 18-month period, and that’s supported by the Cabarrus Center,” Marsh says. 

“We [Flywheel] have been an accelerator program for over eight years. An accelerator program meets the company where they are at in their stage of development and accelerates their path to repeatable revenue and market attraction with appropriate resources,” Marsh says. It’s a12-week program.

The following entities are supporters:  Cabarrus Health Alliance, North Carolina Research Campus, El Puente Hispano, Racial Equity Cabarrus, Cabarrus Economic Development Corporation, the Chamber, Leading Business in Cabarrus and the Small Business Center of Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.

Cabarrus County has developed a strong portfolio of business parks.

“Bringing those parks online gives us an opportunity to respond to [local and relocation] requests,” Castrodale says. “I’m glad we have the real estate.”

The 70-acre Midland Logistics Park opened last October in Midland to provide a central rail hub for the Charlotte area. The park is anchored by the Aberdeen Carolina and Western Railway and has space for three additional railways.

Last summer, Springs Business Park opened in Concord one mile from Interstate 85, with four buildings of office, warehouse and commercial space totaling 119,400 square feet.

Other parks drawing tenants include Metro63 Logistics Center and 85 Exchange, both in Kannapolis, and RiverOaks Corporate Center, Axial Bonds Farm and 84 Automation Drive
in Concord.

Along with all the new business activity in downtown Concord, the city is updating its streetscape. 

The downtown project will feature 22-foot-wide sidewalks, new parking spaces including ADA-accessible spots, concrete sidewalks with brick pavers, trees and landscaping, new light poles and spaces for public art and outdoor dining. The work is expected to be finished by fall 2024.

“The investment we made here [with the Cabarrus Center in Concord] came about the same time that the Downtown Streetscape project happened. I’m not going to say the center was the reason, but everything that’s happened downtown has contributed to [downtown’s] success,” says Marsh.

“The Cabarrus Center has a real strong impact on development through corporate recruiting and things of that nature. So, when people come to meet with the EDC at that center and they see the high level of entrepreneurship, they see that they will find the talent they need. So we’re not only seeing an impact on small business and entrepreneurship, but also on the [economic development] recruiting the county is going through.”

Downtown Kannapolis is being reinvigorated with new housing and retail projects near the minor league baseball stadium. Charlotte Motor Speedway remains a pivotal tourism draw.

Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord is a major economic driver for Cabarrus, the Charlotte area and the entire state. The 1.5-mile oval NASCAR track that hosts the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend along with other stock car, Xfinity Series, truck series and drag races, can hold about 167,000 fans in its stands plus another 50,000 in the infield. 

Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Hass Racing, Penske, JR Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and other teams are based in the area. Hendrick Motorsports’ new advanced manufacturing facility is expected to be operational by June 2024. Because of the $14.9 million investment and 50 new jobs, It will receive economic development grants from Concord and Cabarrus County totaling $449,540 over three years. According to the EDC, grants are paid after taxes have been collected. The investment will net the local government more than $1 million in additional tax revenue over the next 10 years. Hendrick has invested in specialized manufacturing outside the racing industry since 2019.

“Over the past several years, Hendrick Motorsports’ commitment to advanced manufacturing has allowed us to diversify our business and retain quality jobs for our teammates,” President Marshall Carlson said in a release. “This new facility on our campus will allow us to further expand our manufacturing work and create additional career opportunities for people with specialized skills.”

“The bottom line is Cabarrus has a lot of natural advantages, such as its proximity to Charlotte and Charlotte Douglas International Airport. We’re part of the exploding I-85 corridor, and we have a workforce that is growing in both size and talent,” Castrodale says. “Add to that the collaboration across the community that the EDC fosters, and it’s easy to envision a community where the lives of individuals and families continue to improve and our economy continues to grow.

“I hope for us to continue to diversify our industry base and bring more high-skilled jobs to the community, and strengthen our pipeline of K-12 students and employers, to provide opportunities for the people living here.”

— Kathy Blake is a writer from eastern North Carolina.

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