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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Community close up: Guilford County transportation businesses driving growth in a county long known for furniture

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New education programs and changes in agriculture and air travel are making big impacts.


Guilford County has long been a hub for a variety of businesses, including High Points famed furniture sector. It’s also becoming home to a growing number of transportation businesses. Here’s a look at Guilford’s transportation scorecard.

High Point-based Thomas Built Buses which has a long presence in the county, added close to 300 employees last year to boost production of leading edge vehicles. Its Jouley model can travel 135 miles fully charged, seats 81 passengers and is quieter than gas-powered models.

Toyota plans to invest $5.6 billion for its electric vehicle battery plant at the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite near Liberty. The site is expected to employ about 2,100 at a median salary of $62,234.

Piedmont Triad International Airport, with1,000 acres ready for development, already hosts FedEx, Honda Aircraft, HAECO Americas, Cessna. Boom Supersonic plans a $500 million plant.

Mack Truck’s global headquarters also calls Greensboro home.

“We talk a lot about the transportation transformation, and these kinds of companies are making a difference and providing work opportunities for people, as well as bringing recognition to our region,” says Sandy Dunbeck, director of economic development in High Point. Dunbeck was director of the Guilford County Economic Development Alliance in 2021, which represents High Point, Greensboro and other local economic groups.

“The HondaJet project speaks to the assets we have here. And the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite, with the Toyota battery project, is transformational for our area and the people who work there.”

Brent Christensen, CEO of the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce, calls Toyota’s commitment “transformational.” 

“For Toyota to have an EV strategy, this is a mission that is critical to them,” he says, “so we’re excited about it. Then up the road a little you have Volvo Mack, and the cars, trucks, electric school buses. This part of North Carolina is going to touch every kind of electric vehicle made in the future. The road to electrification goes through Guilford County.”

New industries bring new workers – local people trained in workforce pathways through colleges, such as Guilford Technical Community College and High Point University.

And new workers mean new families.

Guilford’s population in 2021 was 542,410, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, up from 517,281 in 2015, making it the third-most populous county in the state. Greensboro counted 298,263 residents in 2021.

“The good news is, we’ve been preparing for this a long time,” Christensen says. “The beauty of these [industry] projects is they’ve been in the works for a while, so last year Guilford County passed a resolution to schedule a $1.7 billion bond referendum for school construction and renovation. So we’ll have the schools ready for the future when these projects come to fruition. We’ve also focused on housing
and have seen thousands of new housing units.”

Bond funds will address infrastructure needs, including building three new schools and renovating about 30 others, as well as provide safety and technology upgrades, according to a school system press release.

THE MARKET EFFECT

For 114 years, the city of High Point has hosted trade shows for the furniture and home interiors industries.  An economic study in 2017 showed High Point Market Authority [HPMA] events bring $6.7 billion into the state and contribute to 15,000 jobs for people who attend the twice-a-year extravaganza.

The market ranks as having the highest economic impact in the state, says Tammy Nagem, president and CEO of the HPMA. 

“It’s because of the way we work with different airports and hotels, and many exhibitors have their corporate offices here in the state,” she says. “People rent rooms. We service about 90 hotels, three airports, two parking lots with about 2,000 spaces and two modes of transportation to move you about downtown, which comes to about 150,000 rides a year out of our transportation system.

“It’s in our DNA,” she says. “We know how to do it.”

Nagem became president and CEO on Jan. 1 after 11 years as COO.

The market consumes 180 buildings, 11.5 million square-feet of showroom space, buyers, sellers, designers, exhibitors and suppliers. “Our population almost doubles,” Nagem says. “You can stand at a stoplight and hear three languages. This isn’t High Point anymore. It’s an international event.”

HPMA has been working on four focus areas for the shows.

First: “To really concentrate on new buyer targets. Our goal is to bring those designers, retailers and other buyers in the trade who are looking for product, so our job is to target the right buyers to come to High Point,” Nagem says. “For example, we’ve been targeting more antique buyers and those in the
luxury sector.”

Second: “We want a frictionless guest experience, to make sure people are getting a well-rounded experience with the new products, education, networking, providing some entertainment in the evenings such as national act concerts just open to market guests,” she says. 

Third: “Technology. We have a technology road map to make sure the buyer and seller connect in a certain way. If you’re at a bus stop, you can look at your app and tell when the bus will be there,” she says. “We have planned maps. When you log in there are a lot of good tools and we try to get real time information between the buyer and seller.”

Fourth: “This is nourishing the next generation of home furnishing professionals. That may sound like it’s out of the scope, but the industry is only as healthy as making sure the next generation understands it. We need to make sure there’s diversity and inclusiveness, and make sure the industry is accessible to all.”

High Point University’s Interior Design, Furnishings & Fashion Merchandising major, with a
bachelor’s in Interior Design, has more than 200 students, about 80% of whom enrolled from out-of-state, says John Turpin, dean of the David R. Hayworth School of
Arts and Design. 
“This is reflected across all majors, including interior design, home furnishings and fashion merchandising,” he says. “Both North Carolina and out-of-state students appreciate the opportunity to gain real-world experience with national and international companies present at the High Point Market. These connections are priceless for students, and they go on to launch careers in the home furnishings industry.”

Graduates of the university’s interior design and fashion merchandising majors, Turpin says, “now design for Lillian August. [Some] are buyers for Pottery Barn and Ashley Furniture. [Others] work as store designers, merchandisers and product developers for Cartier, Kate Spade, Diane von Furstenburg, Bassett, Wayfair, Stickley and Klaussner. High Point University graduates also own and operate their own design firms.”

Turpin says the HPU-HPMA relationship produces “unparalleled networking opportunities.”

“HPU students … (are) gaining experience and building connections with industry leaders in some of the world’s best showrooms – twice per year,” Turpin says. “Both HPU and the High Point Market support each other considering that HPU has renowned interior design and home furnishings programs and High Point Market attracts international businesses. And it all happens in their backyard.”

BOOM’S SOARING IMPACT

Groundbreaking for the 62-acre Overture Superfactory in January on a 62-acre campus at Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro brought Boom Supersonic’s elite jet one step closer to reality. The aircraft will travel twice the speed of today’s commercial jets and fly on 100% sustainable aviation fuel, according to the company. American Airlines, United and Japan Airlines have already pre-ordered Overture jets.

Boom, which hopes to start production in 2024, will recruit an estimated 2,400 workers for a manufacturing program expected to grow the state’s economy by $32.3 billion over 20 years, according to its website. 

“Kevin [Baker] is an incredible airport director, if you’re an economic developer, because he understands what it takes to get economic development projects and what it takes to keep them for many years to come,” Christensen says.

“The site is graded and construction will start very soon,” says Baker, PTI’s executive director. “Test flights will be in 2026. Guilford Tech undoubtedly will be training a number of people who will be working for Boom. GTCC has the most people in aerospace training in the entire state, in multiple programs; they have about 55 or 60%. So they’re a huge partner.

“We work very closely with the airport, and we have one of the biggest aviation programs in the Southeast,” says Dr. Anthony Clarke, president of Guilford Technical Community College. “We do multiple classes every semester. So we are at about 420 to 440 students a year in aviation alone. We work closely with Honda and HAECO, which got busier during the pandemic because they weren’t flying. There’s a constant demand for aircraft personnel.”

Kevin Baker, pictured above . An aerial image of the Guilford County Piedmont Triad International Airport.

Airport traffic is rebounding.

“Our flights are not quite back to pre-COVID numbers, but we’re at about 85% in terms of flights and passengers,” Baker says. “This airport, like others, was hurt by a pilot shortage, and it really impacted smaller facilities and the problem spiraled downward to regional carriers. But it’s starting to come back. There are rays of sunshine.”

PTI’s new air traffic control building was the country’s newest when it came online last November. The 180-foot-tall Sen. Kay Hagan Air Traffic Control Tower has a 15,650-square-foot base that accommodates 10 radar positions and can control airspace within a 60-mile radius, an area that includes 20 general aviation airports.

The new tower, which replaces a 90-foot predecessor in use since 1974, cost $58 million.

“[PTI] is into a pretty serious level of preliminary designs of redoing our terminals. We need some updating on the concourses, where you walk out to the planes. Those buildings are 40 years old,” Baker says. “There aren’t any estimated start dates yet. It’s in the early stages of talking with contractors and designers.”

The airport, he says, has a
dual mission. “We’re still a traditional place of transportation, what everyone thinks an airport is, but we also have this mission as part of aerospace employment and we have 8,600 people here in logistics, building and designing airplanes. We occupy a very specialized niche in the world of airports because of the land we have [more than 1,000 acres available for economic development].

“If Boeing decides they want to make a new airplane, we have the land.”

YOU CAN MAKE IT HERE

“We are the No. 1 state for business in the United States, and we are the heart of manufacturing in the state,” Christensen says. “You’re in the best place. We have the best of what North Carolina has to offer without the headaches you might find elsewhere; we have the least traffic, the shortest commutes.

“But also look at the workforce,” he continues. “At one time, we can have close to 100,000 college students, with degrees being confirmed for 20,000 to 25,000 every year. Our legacies are industries and manufacturing, but we also have incredible talent in entrepreneurial companies. I would stack our area up in talent produced by our colleges and universities with any in the country.”

“We market ourselves jointly as Greensboro-High Point,” Dunbeck says,“with the slogan ‘You Can Make It Here,’ which means you can forge your path in a number of different directions: In advanced manufacturing, in aerospace, in automobiles. There’s a wealth of opportunities.”

NEW SPACE FOR IDEAS
High Point is taking a new step to encourage entrepreneurship.

“The city recently acquired 300 Oak St. in the southwest, and it will be a chance for
entrepreneurs to have their businesses, and we’re working on a shared kitchen project,” says Sandy Dunbeck, the city’s director of economic development. She’s also worked to create opportunity zones with tax benefits and is a member of the Small Scale Manufacturing Initiative, which supports smaller manufacturers and women-owned businesses.

The Oak Street building, which sold for $3 million in December, is an Industrial, opportunity zone space with 30,000 square feet upstairs, office suites and conference rooms. The lower level has warehouse space.

“The opportunities and quality of economic development in the county is on-going,” she says. “There are brand-name companies that we’ve welcomed from throughout the world, we have small businesses, minority businesses, we have high-wage opportunities and we want people to have a thriving life here. You have a way to provide for your family, the average wage continues to grow and we want our citizens to do well.”

GGTCC challenged ESPA to develop a 40,000-square-foot design that not only would house new classrooms, flight simulators, dispatch labs, and faculty offices, and stand out from the nearby warehouses. The goal is to express how the aviation campus will be a part of the growing regional aviation industry.

TEACHING TO THE JOBS
Guilford Technical Community College works with employers to best prepare students for the workforce.

The N.C. Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education [FAME] program announced a partnership in January with Guilford Technical Community College to provide two-year, debt-free associate degrees in STEM fields connected with manufacturing. 

The FAME First in Flight chapter partners with Jowat Adhesives in Archdale, MasterBrand Cabinets in Lexington, Toyota Battery Manufacturing in Liberty and Ziehl-Abegg, a German manufacturer of ventilation fans and drive technology for motors. FAME was founded by Toyota and has 37 chapters in 14 states.

“It is an entity separate from Toyota, and they’re very clear about that,”  says Dr. Anthony Clarke, president of Guilford Technical Community College. “This is the first North Carolina chapter, so we’re honored to be the first partner. It’s an apprenticeship-type program in which students can earn a two-year degree in advanced manufacturing technology. You work for the company while you’re going through the program, t

hen once you have your two-year degree you get hired by them and have a great career with all kinds of opportunities. They call it ‘world-class manufacturing,’ so they want to do best-in-the-world type training.”

GTCC is fourth-largest of North Carolina’s 58 community colleges and has more than 27,000 students. About 12,000 are in degree-pursuing programs, while the remainder is in workforce development. Clarke says the programs with most enrollment are those under associate in arts categories. Aviation, healthcare and public safety are also extremely popular. 

“There are so many different careers. You can train to go get a job, and maybe in the future work toward your bachelor’s,” Clarke says. “We also have a free, ‘last-dollar’ initiative. So if you’re a high school graduate in Guilford County, you can come here for free.”

The $3.2 million Access Amazing Scholarship debuted in March 202

2 and pays the remaining balance of tuition and course fees after all federal, state and scholarship grants have been applied. 

GTCC meets twice annually with local employers in several industries. “We are definitely out there in the community with employers to see how we can help prepare new employees and upscale current employees,” Clarke says. “Yes, there are great jobs, but people aren’t just going to show up. You have to recruit, sell your message, let students know, let parents know. We work with Guilford County Schools to let students know of all the possibilities when they graduate. It’s a work in progress. There’s more to do.

“As far as the great programs we have here, the great faculty and staff, we’re really focusing on how we want every student who comes here to succeed, and we help them do that. It’s all about the student experience: From the time they contact us, to when they graduate, to being in an alumni network, we want their experience to be as good as possible. We want them to know that we care.”

 

OUTPERFORMING EXPECTATAIONS
Greensboro’s performing arts center is breaking records.

The $93 million Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in downtown Greensboro in September 2021, sold out 88 performances its first

year. The shows included Bob Dylan, Josh Groban, Shen Yun, Sting and “Wicked,” the first Broadway show to play the venue. The performance drew more than 66,000 patrons during its 24-show run, making it the highest-grossing, longest-running engagement of a Broadway show ever in the Triad, according to Matt Brown, managing director for the Greensboro Coliseum Complex and Tanger Center.

 “What that’s meant for the community is monumental,” Christensen says. “[The Tanger Center] has everything from
world-class concerts to Broadway shows, and it has really energized our downtown in the way we all had hoped. It was a week from opening when COVID shut us all down, and it has surpassed everyone’s expectations.”

“The economic impact has been enormous,” Brown says of the center. “The venue has truly transformed downtown Greensboro and brought a new energy to downtown. Hotels and restaurants are routinely packed before events.”

The multi-week Broadway shows have generated millions for the region. The Broadway League, the national trade association for the Broadway industry, estimated “Wicked” generated more than $11 million in economic impact for the region, Brown says.

 Disney’s “The Lion King,” also enjoyed a successful two-week run in February and March 2022, grossing more than $3.6 million at the box office. An estimated 46,000 theatergoers saw 16 performances and generated an estimated economic impact of nearly $12 million.

“The response has been nothing short of phenomenal. People in the Triad and beyond no longer need to travel to Durham or Raleigh to enjoy an award-winning Broadway show in a state-of-the-art venue,” Brown adds. “ [Our] first fiscal year – which was only 10 months since it opened in September — saw the venue host 203 events and performances that drew a total of 415,421 patrons. We also sold 17,414 season tickets to our inaugural Broadway season, an industry record for a new venue.”

Along with being a star among patrons, the Tanger Center is getting high marks from promoters, production teams, agents and artists. There have been rave reviews about the quality of the sound and lights, the ease of loading in and loading out a show and the professionalism of the staff, according to Brown.

Broadway productions and concerts aren’t the only shows in town.

The High Point Rockers of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball play at Truist Point Stadium in High Point. The $35 million stadium seats 5,000 and along with a concession stand, includes a full-service restaurant, playground and splash park.

Beginning in 2024, the stadium will be home to the Carolina Core Football Club, a team in the MLS NextPro soccer league, which is affiliated with Major League Soccer. 

The athletic connections, Dunbeck says, has segued into interest in residential developments. “We’ve seen more national developers and more housing at every level, in every price range,” she says. “We have the infrastructure to support that, an urban community with two large cities and the infrastructure to make it easier for developers to come in and build these housing communities.”

“So, we were talking the other day,” Christensen says, “about bringing in Top Golf. Whether you’re a golfer or not, it’s a wonderful way to enjoy the sport of golf. They’re coming here because they know they’ll have the venue. It’s indicative of the growth we’re seeing.”

— Kathy Blake is a writer from eastern North Carolina.

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