Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Community close up: Despite setbacks, Nash and Edgecombe counties are ready to shine

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Diamonds in the rough

Despite setbacks, Nash and Edgecombe counties are ready to shine.

Rocky Mount straddles the Nash and Edgecombe county line. A railroad track, anchored by the Helen P. Gay Rocky Mount Historic Train Station, separates the sides.

Like the Amtrak trains and Greyhound buses that rush through, the city and both counties are moving forward. It’s a rebuild, of sorts, interrupted by upended business investments and Mother Nature.

In December 2021, a fire took out the QVC plant and distribution center in Edgecombe, destroying 75% of the $1.5 million building and putting 2,000 employees out of work. In May 2022, China-based Triangle Tyre pulled out of a $580 million deal at the Kingsboro megasite that was to create 800 jobs.

A tornado in July damaged the Pfizer plant in Rocky Mount.

Then last July, a tornado estimated at 600-yards wide ripped through Rocky Mount and touched downin Dortches.

“We continue to celebrate that by the grace of God no one was killed,” says David Farris, president and CEO of the Rocky Mount Chamber of Commerce. “We had well over 100 homes damaged or destroyed, but we really were
very lucky.” 

For officials in these counties 45 minutes east of Raleigh, the focus is on optimism, not rearview mirrors.

Rocky Mount Mills hosts Chamber Power Breakfast with Superintendent of Public instruction Catherine Truitt.

Rocky Mount Downtown Development manager Tanika Bryant saw potential in the town
of 54,300 when she came from Kentucky in 2022. “What made me say yes to this job was the people,” she says. “Seeing their belief in the city, and downtown, as well as their passion to put the needed work in, along with the great food, friendly people and beautiful  historic downtown, I was sold

“The most important thing that has changed downtown in the past year and a half is the hope of the downtown business owners,” adds Bryant. “Many when we first met were not too optimistic, and they made sure to let me know with lots of passion. However, that has changed tremendously. We are a big family working together to rebuild downtown.”

Four new apartment complexes have opened, she says, with another scheduled for December. “We’ve also welcomed roughly 10 new businesses downtown during my tenure,” she says. “So yes, downtown revitalization is very real for Rocky Mount.”

On the Edgecombe side, County Manager Eric Evans says his leadership team last spring created four focus areas, including its being 99th out of 100 on a Community Health Needs Assessment, an evaluation required every four years by the N.C. Division of
Public Health. 

Crump Group and Millennia celebrate ribbon-cutting celebrations.

“About eight or nine months ago, I realized we have a generic mission statement we’ve had for 20 or 30 years, but we never had a vision statement. We needed to describe that place on the hill that we aspire to get to,” Evans says. “Our goal is to have a task force for each focus area by the end of December and have our first meeting.”

On the Nash side, Economic Developer Susan Phelps sees tangible progress in the county’s Strategic Action Plan crafted in 2020 to address infrastructure, workforce and housing. “We created a marketing campaign and have new shell buildings and are working really hard on workforce development campaigns with Nash Community College and N.C. Wesleyan (in Rocky Mount) to provide our industries with the resources they need,” she says. 

The Carolina Gateway Partnership, headquartered on Main Street in Rocky Mount, recruits industries to eastern North Carolina, specifically in Edgecombe, Rocky Mount and Tarboro. Its Kingsboro site, with a 400-acre ready-to-go lot nixed by the tire company, is rated the No.1 megasite in the Southeast, based on a study by the state’s General Assembly. 

Partnership Vice President Oppie Jordan mentions three “very active” projects eyeing Kingsboro: a $4.2 billion investment, a $2 billion investment that could bring 1,000 jobs and a third at $1.4 billion and 1,400 jobs. “If you add those three together, it’s more than $7 billion in investment and (with) one of them, we’re the only site in North Carolina they’re looking at,” Jordan says. “They plan to have a site picked by [the] first quarter 2024. We have a pad-ready site ready to go, all the utilities and infrastructure in place and one of the best advantages is, we have the location. I mean, that’s more than 3,000 jobs.”

Downtown Rocky Mount, which is undergoing a rebirth, features several vibrant murals, including one of native son and jazz legend Thelonious Monk.

Adds Farris: “Our economic growth continues to move the needle in a positive way. We have several business parks that are all receiving a lot of inquiries, and in some places, plans have been made to relocate or expand. After the tornado, we’re back in operation. That’s the best way to put it.”

Edgecombe: Get off the lists!
At a leadership retreat last March, Evans says, the question arose: Who do we want to be? “It’s a two-sided statement,” he says. “One side faces our citizens and asks who, and how, they want our county to be. The other side faces us and asks how we, as an organization, can help our county. We’re tired of being at the top or bottom of every bad list.”

Influenced by that 99th-ranking in community health, the county adopted a pledge called Get Off the Lists!, hosted community engagement sessions in Tarboro, Rocky Mount and virtually, and established four focus areas: youth and families, affordable housing, education and workforce development and health equity.   

“My theory is we have all the right things, it’s just not enough. So, under each area, we have ‘existing efforts,’ and we ask, where are the gaps? How do we help these entities increase their positive output?” Evans says. “We need better funding, more collaboration, increased leadership abilities, all of those. That’s our model on the table. This is the lens we look through to make decisions.”

Win Academy student.

The N.C. Department of Commerce shows Edgecombe with the second-highest unemployment rate in the state on average at 6.1%.

“It’s one of the many lists we look at. It stares us in the face,” Evans says. “So, I talked with the community college and said, we can have students apply for Pell Grants, we can have scholarships and student aid, but sometimes there’s still a gap.”

Edgecombe Community College in Tarboro recently began its Edgecombe Works! Promise Program for high school graduates, county employees, job-seekers and the under-employed, with scholarships of $500 to $1,000 to cover transportation, child care or other needs so students can study fields such as auto repair, medication aide, nail technician, construction, nurse aid, real estate pre-licensing and others. The community college added an Edgecombe Works! Office Skills Academy, taught at the Tarboro campus and online, and Edgecombe Works! Earn as You Learn for county employees to increase their skill sets.

The Turning Point Workforce Development Board in Rocky Mount, one of 23 such boards in the state and part of NCWorks, is a non-profit governed by a board of directors in partnership with elected officials. Services include on-the-job training, incumbent workforce development, specialized training and company needs assessments. “They are a great resource for us,” Farris says. “They have direct ties with some of our largest employers like Cummins, Pfizer, Honeywell, Cheesecake Factory. They help get people onboard.”

Cummins’ Rocky Mount Engine Plant in Whitakers, a 1.3-million square-foot factory that employs more than 2,000, opened in 1983 and in May marked the production of its 5 millionth engine.

“We’re working feverishly to bring more jobs,” Evans says. “We’ve had the housing crisis, hurricanes, floods but the folks here don’t give up. We have the ingredients; it’s all right here. We can change the future of this county. I really believe that.”

Nash: If they build it…
The Middlesex Corporate Center is 25 minutes from downtown Raleigh. In October, a life sciences company agreed to buy its 62,500-square-foot shell building and its 30-acre plot for $4.6 million. The company intends to create 72 jobs with an average annual salary
of $78,000.

Progress shown in a N.C. 97 Shell building.

“They have a five-year plan,” Phelps says. “They’re adding another 200,000 square feet. That’s why they needed the land.”

In August, Nash County and the town of Nashville reached a joint agreement for the county to build a 40,000-square-foot shell building at the Nashville Business Center, owned by the town. Construction will begin within two years.

“Middlesex is probably our most active industrial park in the county because of the proximity to the Triangle, and we have another supply type company in that park that’s looking to expand,” she says.

Andy Hagy, Nash’s Economic Development director, notes that the county has one of the few 1 million-square-foot sites in the region and is hoping to acquire a major logistics and distribution company, or manufacturing and distribution. “That’s the size of a couple of super Walmarts,” he says. “And at our I-95 and I-97 Industrial Site, we also have some hot property.”

That 142-acre site, with access to highways, airports and the CSX Carolina Connector Intermodal Terminal, is billed as a “high priority for state incentives” because of Nash’s
Tier 1 economic ranking.

“It’s a love-hate relationship because you don’t want to be Tier 1, but with the incentives you do want Tier 1,” Phelps says. “We’re working really hard on a workforce development campaign to provide our industries with the resources they need, and that goes back to the community college and them providing customized training to help us grow our own.”

A non-profit agency called the Strategic Twin Counties Education Partnership is working with K-12 students, she says, “to align coursework with what our industry workforce is.”

In November 2022, towns in Nash County partnered with the county’s Board of Commissioners to create the Nash County Economic Development Alliance to focus on small business, entrepreneurship and downtown revitalization, thereby acknowledging a broader picture of business in the county.

Interstate 95 and U.S. 64 interchange.

“In addition, we’re also supporting private landowners who want to see development on their land,” Phelps says. “And we’re working with them to get certified through the Duke Energy Site Readiness program.”

In October, the North Carolina Rural Infrastructure Authority, a division of the Department of Commerce, approved $2.6 million in grants for seven rural communities in hopes of attracting $53.7 million in investments and creating 321 jobs, according to a release. Nash County, the report says, will receive $750,000 to assist with creation of a lift station and additional sewer line expansion for Middlesex Corporate Centre. This project will open up more than 170 more acres of the park for industrial usage.

Some good news
Several developments in the area show promise for the future. They include:

• The city of Rocky Mount has applied for the Main Street America program, a division of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which coordinates with local communities to “bring economic vitality back downtown, while celebrating their historic character, and bringing communities together.”

The Rocky Mount Sports Complex features sports fields, disc golf, picnic shelters and a walking trail, as well as basketball and volleyball courts.

“We should find out in the spring,” Farris says. “We’re seeing the live-work-play trend, and more and more townhouses are being developed on upper floors of our businesses that would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with anything you’d see in a metropolitan city.”

• In May, QVC sold its property to RMQ Ventures, listed as a North Carolina foreign limited liability company, for $20.8 million. Plans for its use haven’t been disclosed.

• Nash Community College had its largest enrollment ever for the 2022-23 academic year at 16,007 students. “They, and Edgecombe Community College, work very closely with our manufacturing partners, and they pay close attention as technology changes,” Farris says. “Cummins (engine plant in Whitakers) is in the process of upgrading every piece of technology in that plant, and it’s one of the largest Cummins plants in the world. When you have partnerships and relations in the likes of Nash Community College and Edgecombe Community College and N.C. Wesleyan, it’s great for recruiting industries and seeing them expand, because they know they have the resources to train the workforce.”

• In October, N.C. Wesleyan partnered with Rocky Mount to offer educational opportunities to city employees, to “develop practical skills that they can apply to their careers through certificate, undergraduate and graduate degree programs at N.C. Wesleyan University,” according to a release. The partnership allows N.C. Wesleyan to offer a one-time $250 University Award of enrollment in certificate classes to each Rocky Mount employee during their last semester of enrollment. 

The CSX Carolina Connector that opened in 2021 on 330 acres near Rocky Mount joined with the Port of Savannah’s Mason Megal Rail Terminal in September for daily rail service. According to the release, with 37 weekly services, the Port of Savannah offers more containership calls linking more world markets than any other port in the mid-Atlantic or U.S. Southeast.

Overall, what community leaders see is optimism.

CSX Carolina Connector and food company SinnovaTek are two examples of the diversity in industry in Nash and Edgecombe counties.

Says Farris, “I go by [residential/ business development] Rock Mount Mills every day and it looks like a Norman Rockwell setting, with the townhouses that overlook the river, the homes, the breweries and restaurants, the businesses and shops. It’s a beautiful place to spend the evening or start your day. We are excited about where we’re going. Everything seems to be breaking our way.”

Adds Evans: “I think we have all the right ingredients. We suffer from some of the same problems as other places, but I think the difference is that we have everything here we need to move forward. It’s all available to us. We’ve got it; we just need to coordinate it and use it.”

— Kathy Blake is a writer from eastern North Carolina.

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