Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Community close up: Farm friendly Pitt County cultivates new industries, workers and infrastructure

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Always a leader in North Carolina agriculture, Pitt County is cultivating new industries, workers and infrastructure. And it’s already reaping the rewards of that work.

S&S Farms is in its third generation of family ownership. It started in 1952 with row crops — tobacco and cotton — on its acres between Greenville and Farmville in Pitt County. “Tobacco was a mainstay for us early in our farming career,” says its owner, Steve Sutton, who took over in 1974. “We farm about 2,500 acres of land, and that consists of about 1,100 acres of corn, about 1,400 acres of soybeans and about 400 acres of wheat that is in a double-crop situation,” he says.

But times change. The Suttons began raising chickens and ventured into agritourism — adding attractions to bring customers and their dollars to farm — with Homeland Strawberries four years ago. It hosts school field trips and community events, educating visitors about agriculture, livestock and conservation, using its installed waterways and till and no-till acres as examples. N.C. Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts named it and the Suttons its 2021 State Conservation Farm Family of the Year.

Agriculture continues to be a staple of Pitt County’s economy. U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2020 statistics show it ranked fifth in the state for peanuts, seventh for cotton and soybeans, and 15th for corn, putting it 15th overall with cash receipts of $80.5 million. Add livestock and it jumps to 10th among the state’s 100 counties. But it’s not the only industry that’s growing in this corner of North Carolina.

Thermo Fisher Scientific, for example, was Pitt County Economic Development’s Industry of the Year in 2021. It’s investing $154 million to increase capacity at its 1-million-square-foot pharmaceutical production and packaging factory in Greenville. And in a $4 million rebranding, Vidant Health and East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine formed a partnership in May, becoming ECU Health, an eight-hospital network that serves
1.4 million people in 29 counties.

Cultivating growth requires inputs, from partnerships to transportation improvements. N.C. Department of Transportation opened Interstate 587 — Greenville’s first interstate — in June. Its 37 miles touches Pitt, Greene and Wilson counties. “Transportation access is a major decision factor in economic development,” says Kelly Andrews, Pitt County Economic Development director. “The unveiling of Interstate 587 is a major boost for our efforts in eastern North Carolina and Pitt County.”

Greenville Mayor P.J. Connelly says I-587 will lead to further growth for the county and region. “In the coming years, the DOT’s Quad-East plan that will connect Greenville, Wilson, Goldsboro and Kinston will be vital in our efforts to grow our cities, expand our workforces, spur economic development and make eastern North Carolina the best that it can be,” he says. “Over the next five years, we have to continue to ensure that our investment in infrastructure and the services we provide keeps up with the growth we are experiencing.”

Intersect East

Tobacco buildings have stood in Greenville for decades, monuments to Pitt County producing the most tobacco in the top tobacco-producing state as recently as the mid-1990s. “The buildings were once tobacco auction warehouses in the first half of the 20th century … ,” says Tim Elliott, managing partner and chief visioneering officer of Maryland-based Elliott Sidewalk Communities. “Once the tobacco industry waned and that economic engine was gone, the buildings were briefly repurposed into retail and industrial uses then went vacant in the 1980s.”

ECU saw promise in the tobacco buildings, which stand where its campus and downtown Greenville meet. So, it purchased them in 2007 then partnered with Elliot’s development company to turn them into a 19-acre residential, retail, office and industrial development that’s expected to be complete in 2029. “We named it Intersect East, because it’s at the intersection of history and the future … ,” Elliot says. “We added ‘east’ because it’s all about making eastern North Carolina a contender in the growing university innovation hub market.”

G.K. Butterfield Transportation Center

Intersect East will solidify Greenville’s “Hub of the East” moniker. The $275 million project is the nation’s first Pacesetter Innovation Hub. “By definition, a Pacesetter Innovation Hub is like an Olympic training center for champion businesses that can collaborate with university resources for workforce innovation, training and execution,” Elliott says. “Currently, Greenville is not known for its innovation center, and we knew to put it on the map we had to do something different.”

Phase 1 of construction involves five buildings, three of which are historic. About 115,000 square feet will become office and research space and 110,000 square feet will become light manufacturing, research and industrial. Elliott says negotiations are ongoing with prospective tenants, including some from New York and Brazil and “local corporate heavyweights.”

Greenville Convention Center

ECU expects Intersect East, which eventually will consist of 1million square feet of space across 14 buildings, to produce $656 million in regional growth, bring 3,500 jobs and positively impact city, county and state tax revenue. “This is Greenville’s unique opportunity to catch the economic train, so to speak, that Charlotte, the Triad and Raleigh are experiencing,” Elliott says.

Health care

ECU Health and Franklin, Tennessee-based Acadia Healthcare recently announced they were building a $65 million behavioral hospital in Greenville’s medical district. Acadia, the nation’s largest standalone health company solely focused on behavioral health services, is contributing $50 million to construction. ECU Health is adding $15 million, including land.

A view of the cupola at East Carolina University in the fall.

 Brian Wudkwych, ECU Health public relations manager, says 2021 statistics ranked North Carolina 42nd to 45th nationally in treating mental illness. “[Partnering with Acadia] will deepen our level of expertise, implement best practices, increase the number of services we provide, enhance teaching opportunities with East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine, College of Nursing and College of Allied Health Sciences students and residents, and expand the continuum of care we offer,” he says.

The 144-bed hospital, which is expected to open in 2025, will have 24 in-patient beds for adolescents and children. “These beds will be the first of their kind in ECU Health’s 29-county service area and the only child and adolescent beds within 75 miles of Greenville,” Wudkwych says. “Given the profound challenges facing our state in terms of access to quality behavioral health care, especially in rural communities, there is a tremendous need for innovative strategies to address these challenges. This new hospital is designed with those realities in mind. Prior to the pandemic, nearly one in five North Carolinians were experiencing a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder, according to a report from the North Carolina Institute of Medicine’s Task Force on Mental Health and Substance Use.”

Workforce development

North Carolina’s 58 community colleges offer customized workforce training to businesses, including those in Pitt County. “The program was developed in recognition of the fact that one of the most important factors for a business or industry considering locating, expanding or remaining in North Carolina is the ability of the state to ensure the presence of a well-trained workforce,” says Sheila Ormond, Pitt Community College’s industrial training coordinator. AccuFlex Packaging, Attindas Hygiene Partners, DSM Dyneema, Greenville Produce Company and Hyster-Yale have used PCC’s customized training over the past year. 

Thermo Fisher’s recently announced expansion is expected to create almost 300 jobs, many of which will be filled by PCC-trained workers. Nine of its students completed a pre-hire training program in July. Coursework was customized to Thermo Fisher’s workforce needs by the community college.

PCC prepares future workers in other ways, including partnerships with Pitt County Schools. One is Technical Academy. “[It] enables high school students to take courses in high-demand programs starting in the 11th grade,” says Technical Academy Director Lynn Griffin. “Students take classes at PCC every morning then return to their high school for lunch, third and fourth period. These classes count toward their high school graduation requirements and toward an associate degree.”

Technical Academy debuted in the 2018-19 school year with 20 students. Enrollment more than doubled the next year. Students, who apply as sophomores, choose from
six programs: Architectural Technology; Biotechnology; Industrial Systems; Electrical Systems; Computer-Integrated Machining; and Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration. “We have several high school students who have part-time jobs in their field of study making well over minimum wage and getting experience in the field,” Griffin says. “These students have the potential to move up the ladder very quickly.” Salaries for full-time positions in these fields range from $35,000 to $79,000.

Graduates can complete a college credential that they started while in high school through the Career and College Promise Program. “It allows students to take community college classes tuition free while in high school and receive both high school and college credit,” says Brian Jones, PCC’s assistant vice president of enrollment services.  “We have some programs, such as Electrical, that the workforce will hire students part-time after completing some courses that can be taken while in high school. However, most industries require a college credential, which is at least a year’s worth of classes before hiring.”

Students who complete 12 credit hours at PCC as a dual-enrolled student are guaranteed their tuition will be covered for up to two years following high school graduation thanks to the Bulldog Promise Scholarship. “The only additional requirement is for them to complete the [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] each academic year and maintain good academic standing,” Jones says. “This provides an opportunity for high school students in Pitt County to complete an entire associate degree without having to pay any tuition.”

Career and college preparation begins even earlier in Bethel, a small community about 15 miles north of Greenville. “I know how challenging it is for children to succeed without supplemental support beyond the classroom such as mentors, tutoring programs and food supplements,” says Garrie Moore, founder of the Bethel Youth Activity Center. “I was raised in a good family where we had very little resources but knew the value of consistent hard work. I was determined to use my blessings and pay it forward.”

Photo credit: City of Greenville

Moore has worked several decades in higher education, including at PCC and ECU. He founded the Center for Science Technology and Leadership Development, a 501c3 nonprofit to provide leadership development training and educational support for children, and established the Bethel Youth Activity Center in November 2020, repurposing a former ABC Store. The latter welcomes about 20 students each day, helping with school assignments from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. then tutoring and other activities until 5 p.m. “This building continues to serve our youth and also serves as a Community Workforce Development Building,” he says. “We recognize that not every high school student will attend college. To that end, we are positioned to work with schools and the community college to conduct apprenticeship training for any interested student.”

Bethel Youth Activity Center is meeting growing demand for its services with the recent acquisition of the adjacent Southern Bank building. “We did not have the resources to purchase this building, but we were not without friends and supporters,” Moore says. The two buildings can accommodate 100 students. “[The bank building] includes expanded resources to provide literacy education, financial literacy and [science, technology, engineering and math] programs,” he says. “It was our youth who decided to transform the vault into a library. We now tell visitors that this vault now houses ‘intellectual capital.’”

Moore’s efforts are growing. “Equally important to acknowledge is that we have expanded our collaborations to include other nonprofits and established [memorandums of understanding] with Pitt County Schools, Pitt Community College, ECU Health, Brody School of Medicine and ECU,” he says. “This collaboration affords us the opportunity to expand our mission to include opportunities for the community: workforce development, GED testing, health assessments and much more. I want to see every child have opportunities beyond the classroom that support their learning, growth and matriculation to college, technical training or work.”

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