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A perennial agricultural powerhouse, eastern North Carolina is turning new leaves. It’s refocusing and expanding, cultivating assets to create a bountiful future.
As springtime sunshine warms the ground, the emergence of tiny green sprouts, neatly planted in rows, will signify the start of another growing season in eastern North Carolina. Agriculture has dominated the region’s economy and business dealings for decades. But more is stirring here.
Infrastructure improvements are underway, bringing new opportunities to longtime industries, such as health care, manufacturing and tourism, and support to more recent ones, such as biotechnology, which have taken root and are growing across eastern North Carolina. Educational and workforce development opportunities are also expanding, ensuring a skilled workforce is available.
Lawrence Bivins is managing director of policy and public affairs for Raleigh-based North Carolina Economic Development Association, and he’s bullish about eastern North Carolina. “If it were a publicly traded company, I’d be buying shares of stock right now,” he says. “Eastern North Carolina is in many respects a very rich place, not always financially, but in terms of history and culture. The infrastructure is coming in. The leadership is working on solutions. We’re working on keeping the talent that we have.”
Greenville-based NCEast Alliance, which develops business and industry in eastern North Carolina counties, completed a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis in September 2020. It identified workforce and entrepreneurial development as ways to unite its 29 members. The analysis revealed that the alliance needs “to work specifically with the talent that we have, the economic landscape that we find ourselves in, while aiming toward the economic landscape that we hope to see in the future.”
Bivins says economic development’s priority is always the problem that’s most difficult to solve at the moment. “And that’s people — workforce and talent,” he says. “You can invest in all the infrastructure, site prep, natural gas, broadband — but that’s really putting the cart before the horse. So how do you change this overnight? How can you change the hemorrhaging of young people leaving at [age] 18 and never looking back? You need to reach out not just to the 18-year-olds but the parents, too. You have to help the parents understand that staying around and going to community college and getting an associate degree in culinary arts, in aircraft maintenance. There are careers that are in high demand. That’s a viable alternative to going away to a big four-year university so you can manage a hedge fund.”
Two programs — Rivers East Academy for Advanced Manufacturing and STEM workshops — expose high school students to hometown career options. “These projects are pursuing the opportunity to better educate teachers on what jobs exist in eastern North Carolina to steer local students to those jobs,” says Trey Goodson, NCEast regional economic developer and director of marketing and communications. “The plan is to expand these initiatives to [the Alliance’s] entire 29-county region.”
Rivers East Academy, funded by Golden LEAF Foundation to advance the Regional Advanced Manufacturing Pipeline for Eastern North Carolina — RAMP East — launched in Beaufort, Bertie, Hertford, Hyde, Martin and Pitt counties in October. It trains faculty from high schools and community colleges, along with community college student “ambassadors,” to use inspiration, motivation and empowerment to ease students’ transition from high school to community college to career. STEM East, in collaboration with businesses, economic developers and other entities, uses state-of-the-art instruction labs in Craven, Jones, Lenoir and Wayne counties, to educate about and align students with career opportunities.
The College of the Albemarle has campuses in Elizabeth City, Barco, Manteo and Edenton. Its course offerings include manufacturing and transportation, hospitality and public service, and health and wellness. “In the post-COVID world, we’ve really identified how important strengthening our workforce and infrastructure will be for the future of Chowan County,” says Liza Layton, Edenton Chowan Partnership executive director. “We are working with our local community college, school system and other partners to promote the school-to-work pipeline and enhance workforce training for our industry and business.”
Vidant Medical Center in Greenville is the largest of Vidant Health’s eight hospitals. The health system’s more than 12,000 workers make it the region’s largest private employer, and it’s the teaching center for neighbor Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University. The two entered a joint operating agreement in January, creating ECU Health. The newly formed entity will train the next generation of physicians. “The two mission-driven organizations will create enhanced rural health training opportunities for medical students and residents as well as expanded research and clinical trial capabilities,” says Brian Wudkwych, Vidant spokesman. “[The two] will integrate under the new shared brand.”
New Bern-based CarolinaEast Health System welcomes UNC Health medical students, fellows and residents, one facet of an affiliation agreement announced by the two health systems last year. “The affiliation will enhance the quality of health care in the eastern region while simultaneously growing specialty services in Craven County and beyond,” says CarolinaEast President and CEO Ray Leggett. “This affiliation underscores both organizations’ commitment to rural health care [and] expands the range of services CarolinaEast offers today, including those in the pediatric population.”
The affiliation also expands offerings at 80,000-square-foot SECU Comprehensive Cancer Center at CarolinaEast Medical Center. “As a result of that partnership, patients receive cancer treatment capabilities not previously available in the East,” Leggett says. “Residents of Craven County no longer need to travel to the Triangle for leading-edge clinical trials, treatment protocols and the skill of additional oncology specialists to aid their care.”
CarolinaEast provided a $150,000 grant to Craven Community College. It supports a full-time nursing instructor, increasing class size and graduates to help meeting the growing need for nurses, says Jim Davis, the health system’s chief nursing officer and vice president of nursing. “An additional partnership that will be announced soon will help them create two cohorts of students, one graduating in May and one in December,” he says. “This partnership helps us to educate more local students who traditionally have preferred to stay local after graduation.”
CarolinaEast organizes a health care career day for high school students from Craven, Jones, Pamlico and Carteret counties. “We educate students about health care careers by having different disciplines in the classroom,” says Lesley Hunter, the health system’s vice president of human resources. “We are a site for [career technical education] students, and they are routinely in the medical center. We also present tips for interviewing and resume writing. We also provide scholarship opportunities to students graduating from high school to provide financial assistance to attend health care programs in the local community college and universities.”
Todd Edwards is a founding member of The Farmville Group, helping bring businesses to Farmville, less than 10 miles west of Greenville on N.C. 264 and serves on NCEast’s board. He is fond of interstates, which he calls “ribbons of prosperity for the regions they serve.”
Several interstate projects are raising growth prospects across the region, whose options have been limited to interstates 40 and 95 for decades. “It has been an unpleasant outward sign of our overall lack of prosperity, compared to the rest [of the state],” Edwards says. “Up until now, most of eastern North Carolina has not been on that playing field. We are soon to have new fields all over our region to play on, and that future is looking very bright because of prospects that these highways bring.”
Edwards says 137-mile Interstate 42, which will use a long stretch of U.S. 70, is under development. It’ll connect Raleigh, I-95 and I-40 and improve access to Port of Morehead City, U.S. Navy’s Fleet Readiness Center East in Havelock, Marine Corps Cherry Point Air Station and the Crystal Coast, a popular tourist destination on the southern Outer Banks. It also will link to 2,500-acre Global TransPark in Kinston, a multimodal industrial park and airport that supports defense, aerospace, manufacturing and advanced materials companies. Its onsite workforce training center — Spirit Aerosystems Composite Center of Excellence — is a partnership with Lenoir Community College.
Future Interstate 587, an upgraded stretch of U.S. 264, is near completion. “[It] will connect Vidant, [East Carolina University] and a large cluster of pharmaceutical and boat industry manufacturers to the rest of the world,” Edwards says. “Finally, the partially completed I-87 from Raleigh to Norfolk has recently garnered newfound attention and is being heavily considered for some fast tracking to renewed planning and funding initiatives in the very near future. This will be a huge boost for all of eastern North Carolina, Raleigh and our friends in the Tidewater region. It is a project being pushed from both sides of the Virginia-North Carolina line.”
Interstates support the region’s BioPharma Crescent, which arcs across Edgecombe, Johnston, Nash, Pitt and Wilson counties. More than 10,000 people work there. It’s home to some of the industry’s biggest players, including GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer and Thermo Fisher Scientific. “Logistically, they’re near [Research Triangle Park] and in an area with plenty of available land and plenty of industrial sites where there is an affordable cost of living,” Bivins says. “Plus, they’re near I-95 and the port [of Morehead City].”
Kitty Hawk Offshore is a proposed 122,405-acre wind-power project about 28 miles off Currituck County’s coast. It would generate enough electricity to power 700,000 homes. Avangrid Renewables has been studying it since 2017, when the company was awarded a lease by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The Portland-based energy developer submitted its construction and operations to federal regulators in December 2020. Construction will begin after it’s approved and energy buyers secured.
Currituck County Economic Development Director Larry Lombardi says offshore wind projects are tremendous economic opportunities that create high-paying jobs. Dominion Energy, for example, is building one off the coast of Virginia. That state has welcomed such projects with open arms. “Currituck County’s role … will be to provide a greenfield of new buildings for the second- and third-tier manufacturers and suppliers to these projects,” he says. “Due to the rising cost of land, the tax structure and as more manufacturing sites in Virginia’s Tidewater become hard to find, Currituck County being right over the state line with its lower taxes and proximity to the Outer Banks will be able to leverage those advantages and capture some of those companies looking to supply the [offshore] projects.”
Lombardi describes Currituck County’s recent growth as “tremendous.” Its school district plans to add a $30 million elementary school, for example, within three to seven years. And Currituck County Regional Airport in Maple is poised for its first updates in more than two decades. They include a longer runway, more hangars and modern runway lights. Government grants will pay for 90% of them. “Now that we have the [airport] layout plan, we can move forward in trying to find the [local] funding, hopefully from the state by lobbying our elected state representatives,” he says.
Edenton Chowan Partnership’s Layton wants to see more. “I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention broadband,” she says. “What a need we’ve seen through the pandemic and after. We have to figure out how to expand quality and reliable broadband in our state so children in rural areas have the same opportunities as those in the urban centers. Chowan County has made the expansion of broadband a priority and is committed to being a partner to internet-service providers in the area.”
The Port of Wilmington, where finished goods, such as furniture and fertilizer, arrive and agricultural products and auto parts depart, is 26 miles up the Cape Fear River from open ocean. “We have the capability to have the largest boats that use the Panama Canal call on the Port of Wilmington,” says Christina Hallingse, N.C. Ports Authority communications manager. “We have trans-Atlantic services, ships that are either northbound or southbound to and from Central America, or trans-Pacific, a number of places.”
But the Port could do more. Its 42-foot-deep channel, 6,768 feet of wharf frontage and 100-acre container terminal can handle 600,000 shipping containers worth of goods annually. But it can’t welcome larger fully loaded ships. Those require a channel that’s at least 47 feet deep at low tide. “A more efficient channel would modernize the Port, attract more import and export business, help mitigate East Coast congestion, and help North Carolina ports become an even stronger player in this competitive landscape, thereby supporting the economy of Wilmington, New Hanover County, eastern North Carolina and the entire state,” Hallingse says.
Help is on the way. Congress approved the Wilmington Harbor Navigation Improvement Project in late 2020. It includes dredging the Cape Fear River, which is estimated to cost $834 million, according to a feasibility study commissioned by the ports authority. The dredging project is one of several underway on the East Coast. The Army Corps of Engineers is deepening the port in Savannah, Ga., and the channel in Charleston, S.C. Norfolk, Va., has begun a project to make its port 55-feet deep by 2024, which will make it the East Coast’s deepest.
North Carolina’s other port — Morehead City — is 4 miles inland. Ships, which set sail with woodchips, aircraft parts and other cargo, access it through a 45-foot-deep channel. It has more than 1 million square feet of warehouse space and, like Port of Wilmington, is served by rail. “Ports are catalysts for economic development,” Hallingse says. “The N.C. State Ports Authority works in conjunction with the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina on any potential projects that they are recruiting that could utilize or benefit from the proximity and access to a port.”
Eastern North Carolina is home to many industries, such as agriculture and food processing. There’s boat building, too, including well-known Grady-White in Greenville. The Perquimans Marine Industrial Park recently received state funding. “The $4 million will be used to construct a basin at the industrial park,” says NCEast’s Goodson. “This will help recruit boat builders who have shown interest in the park in recent years.”
ElecriCities of North Carolina, which represents municipal electric utilities in the Carolinas and Virginia, certified the 71-acre Perquimans Marine Industrial Park a Smart Site. That announces that it’s shovel ready for development — on-site municipal electric service, water and sewer services within 200 feet, and less than
5 miles from an interstate or interstate-
Visitor spending in North Carolina totaled $19.96 billion in 2020, according
to Visit NC, EDPNC’s tourism promotion arm. That’s 32% less than the year prior, thanks to stay-at-home orders issued to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. But there were some bright spots, especially in eastern North Carolina, where tourists felt safe enjoy-ing open spaces. Spending increases in 2020 included 3% in Currituck, 21% in Greene, 9% in Northampton, 4% in Jones and 2% in Tyrell.
As the pandemic eases, the state’s tourism industry is rebounding. That’s especially true in eastern North Carolina, whose accommodations, beaches and golf courses have been attractions for generations. NCEDA, for example, held its recent spring conference in Pinehurst. “We have 25 site-selection people flying in from all over the country,” Bivens said prior to the event. “We want to show that North Carolina is ready and reliable.”
Moore County had the state’s 12th-best tourism economy in 2020. It’s hosting the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in June, and United States Golf Association’s second headquarters — Golf House Pinehurst — and a 34-room boutique hotel is under development. “Overall, the USGA coming here will have a huge impact on tourism, especially with the new testing center and museum,” says Phil Werz, president and CEO of the Convention and Visitors Bureau for the Pinehurst, Southern Pines, Aberdeen Area. “The [turf grass management component] will also have an impact based on the partnerships they are creating with local and regional universities, including Sandhills Community College, N.C. State University and North Carolina A&T.”
The Home of American Golf isn’t resting on its laurels. The CVB recently launched “Paradise in the Pines,” a twice-monthly podcast that shares stories of local attractions, events and residents. And it will debut its Sandhills Pour Tour Passport this month. Holders who have it stamped at seven local craft breweries qualify for a reward. “They receive a Sandhills Pour Tour mug and, while supplies last, a special Donald Ross 150th anniversary commemorative coin,” Werz says. “For every coin we give as a prize for a fully stamped passport, the CVB will donate $25 to support the Tufts Archives [history collection and display at Given Memorial Library] in the village of Pinehurst.” He says the Passport encourages people to explore Moore County, supporting a variety of local businesses in the process.
Werz says the Pinehurst-Southern Pines-Aberdeen area is already 70% ahead of last year’s tourism numbers. “When we get the 2021 report from the state this fall, I anticipate being back close to $600 million in visitor spending,” he says. “With a global event such as the U.S. Women’s Open, our local economy will definitely benefit — restaurants, shopping, all the hospitality-related businesses stand to benefit. The economic impact will be in the millions.” ■
— Kathy Blake is a writer from eastern North Carolina.