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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Community close up: Iredell County races ahead

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From its northern line at Yadkin and Wilkes, to its southern at Mecklenburg, Iredell is one of North Carolina’s longest counties, stretching almost 50 miles.

It also is one of two nationwide, according to a UNC study, that borders nine other counties.

Within its lines lies a versatile landscape – populous boroughs of manufacturing and industry, a midsection of rail lines and crisscrossing interstates, and a northern sector of lush pastureland and farming, void of cityfied infrastructure and development.

Interstate 77 travels the length of Iredell like a four-lane economic indicator, its northern end a scenic country drive, its southern a congested toll road, with payment options through NC Quick Pass.

Iredell’s story, its Economic Development Corporation says, is told through three principal chapters: manufacturing, distribution and logistics and agriculture. Supporting them are two school systems, a community college chartered in 1859 and a growing economy that includes jobs paying the sixth-highest average wages among the state’s 100 counties.

Jenn Bosser moved to Iredell five years ago and is president and CEO of the EDC. Her office is in the southern-end town of Mooresville, which swelled from 50,193 residents in 2020 to 54,810 now.

The biggest change since her arrival, she says, is repurposing of land.

“I would say it’s the industrial sites. When I first got here, we had a lot of ground available but not site-ready,” she says.

The trigger came in 2019 when developer Kathy Godley began construction on a 1 million square-foot industrial park in Troutman, a town of 3,600 between Mooresville and Statesville. It’s perhaps best-known for hosting a National Balloon Rally.

Troutman Industrial Park would be one mile from I-77, less than 10 from Interstate 40.

“Everyone thought she was crazy. Why have 1 million square-feet of distribution space in the middle of Troutman?” Bosser says. “Then Walmart bought it [for $69 million] in December 2020, and everyone woke up and said, ‘Iredell has so much land north of Charlotte,’ and since then the private investment in industrial buildings and sites has been unprecedented.”

Charlotte to Mooresville is 28 miles, using the express lane, a trip on I-77 that includes a bridge over Lake Norman. The distance is a positive for commuters, but Iredell is carving its own identity, away from that.

The county slogan is “Crossroads for the Future.”

“I think,” Bosser says, “it should be ‘Crossroads for Now.’”

Manufacturing

Iredell has 10 industrial/business/commerce parks with Statesville, Mooresville or Troutman addresses, and the EDC reports 13 announced projects totaling $784 million in investment in 2022, creating 904 jobs.

Through March, there have been six announcements this year of five new companies and one expansion. Japanese company NGK Ceramics, Bosser says, has “grown 17 times in the last 30 years” in Mooresville.

DENSO Manufacturing in Statesville, an automotive components company, recently invested $38 million in machinery, Bosser says, and Germany-based wood and panel processing technology equipment’s Weinig Holz-Her recently signed a lease for 149,110 square-feet at the Statesville Commerce Center.

Sherwin-Williams invested nearly $325 million in Statesville and announced a 36,000 square-foot extension to its manufacturing facility and a new 800,000 square-foot distribution and fleet transportation center, with four rail spurs, to be completed by year’s end.

Troutman broke ground last July on its 500,000-square-foot North Fork Business Park, 2 miles west of I-77 and across the street from the Walmart Fulfillment Center. In March, Collett Industrial announced its $5.5 million purchase off I-77 for a 90-acre project in Troutman called Northside 77.

“We want to have a balance of product, manufacturing, industrial and distribution,” Bosser says, “and one thing that’s helped us in the mix, is we are able to accommodate a company such as Sherwin-Williams that needed that, the manufacturing and the distribution.”

Distribution and logistics

Statesville, the county seat, is part of the Main Street America Accredited program.

The Downtown Statesville Development Corp. oversees developing public-private partnerships to boost economic growth.

Statesville is where interstates 77 and 40 intersect. U.S. 64, which runs 2,281 miles from Nags Head to Arizona, cuts through Statesville as does U.S. 70, which stretches from Arizona to Carteret County. The town is 40 miles from Charlotte Douglas International Airport and is served by Statesville Regional Airport’s private corporate jet and freight resources.

West Star Aviation, which specializes in airframe and engine repair, maintenance and modifications, is expected to add 200 jobs, Bosser says. “Having that industry there and a number of outparcels there will be interesting opportunities,” she says.

Seventy-two percent of the U.S. is within two-days’ trucking time, according to the EDC; 26 companies list locations in Statesville or Mooresville with distribution and/or logistics as their description.

The northeast quadrant of the I-77/ I-40 intersection is a mix of distribution and manufacturing, Bosser says, with 5 million square-feet going in. The northwest quad has South Korea-based Doosan Bobcat, which completed a
$70 million expansion in 2022.

Training the workforce

Like the county, Mitchell Community College in Statesville has evolved, from its inaugural purpose as a Presbyterian college for women, with emphasis on music and fine arts, to becoming the 57th member of the North Carolina Community College System in 1973. Mitchell opened early college programs to high-schoolers in 2004 and, now, focuses on job creation and employment opportunities. It also houses a million-dollar advanced manufacturing center.

Enrollment increased in fall 2023, with full-time rising 10% and workforce development programs 9%. The school served more than 6,000 students during the fall semester.

Its 2023-2028 strategic plan, Mitchell Empowers Futures, embraces three priorities: Teaching and learning, achieving economic mobility and thriving partnerships with stakeholders. Degree programs at Mitchell Community College locations in Statesville and Mooresville include business agriculture, computer technologies and graphic design, health sciences, engineering and construction, business technologies, public safety and public service technologies.

The Iredell EDC’s 2023 Annual Report notes Mitchell awarded $107,941 to 20 Iredell companies to train 931 employees.

In 2022, community partners committed $750,000 to launch Iredell Ready, a marriage of workforce partners to help students of all ages. Iredell Ready offers apprenticeships, internships and job shadowing.

Race cars

Mooresville can name-drop well, knowns such as JR Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt, Kyle Busch Motorsports, Rusty Wallace, Penske and Kasey Kahne among its 60 NASCAR team shops, offices or manufacturing sites, in its branding “Race City USA.”

The NASCAR Technical Institute trade school in Mooresville, with courses in welding, robotics and automation, HVACR, machinist training and automotive technician, works with local race teams such as Roush Yates, which helped create the CNC Machining course.

At least five of Iredell’s top 20 manufacturers have ties to NASCAR, including big names Team Penske and Roush Yates, which expanded to include aerospace, defense and medical in its manufacturing resume. Keselowski Advanced Manufacturing in Statesville added aerospace, defense and energy work to its automotive and performance motorsports work.

“Some of those operations are larger than the motorsports side,” Bosser says.
“It’s really kind of neat to watch, because
you see them take their skills and capabilities and transfer to a new industry section.”

The lifestyle and visitors’ chapter

Several NASCAR companies have local museums. Visit Mooresville, the convention and visitors bureau, has the list, as well as other things to occupy time:

Boat rentals and fishing charters on Lake Norman; juried art shows and the Mooresville Museum; golf courses and state parks; and an Ale Trail. A car show is held every fourth Saturday at Merino Mill in Mooresville, and the Rock the Park Summer Concert Series starts in June. The Carolina BalloonFest, with a skydiving exhibition, is in October.

Up and down Iredell’s 50 miles, neighborhoods are marked with growth. Troutman recently approved rezoning to add 2,800 residential units. Statesville is getting a new fire station and an inclusive playground at Jenning Park, thanks to a $500,000 Accessibility for Parks Grant.

“Overall, we saw the second-most retail growth in North Carolina last year, and a lot of people are making investments in all kinds of businesses to start here,” Bosser says. “They see it as a good place to live and raise their family. Iredell is a good place to hang your shingle.”

KEEPING IREDELL FARM FRIENDLY

Ensuring country living’s survival in the face of big-city development.

Iredell is the No. 1 dairy producing county in the state, No. 1 in all cattle (No. 4 in beef) and No. 1 in corn silage. Cash receipts from agriculture is approximately $174 million, with an economic impact of $680 million.

That’s the good news.

But agriculture in Iredell County is shrinking. The 2017 Census of Agriculture listed 1,055 farms on 133,346 acres, meaning 32.5% of the county was farmland. By 2020, the farm count diminished to 894, a loss of 161, and acreage dropped to 119,481, a loss of more than 13,000.

“If we continue the way we’re going, we are projected to lose 42,000 acres by 2040,” says County Extension Director Nancy Keith, “and if urban sprawl kicks in, we will lose 60,000 acres by 2040.”

A recent report by NumbersUSA says that since 1982, North Carolina has lost more than 2.5 million acres of farmland to urban sprawl, as the state added 4.25 million residents during that frame.

Last December, Iredell’s Board of Commissioners adopted its 2045 Horizon Plan, which addresses the dilemma of Mecklenburg-induced growth pouring into Iredell, south-to-north, mile marker by mile marker.

The plan approaches growth in population, infrastructure needs, advances in technology, transportation, growth related to interstate access and environmental considerations along Lake Norman and the Catawba River.

Iredell ranks 38th among U.S. counties for projected loss of farmland, Keith says.

The majority of farms are family owned and average about 134 acres.
In addition to cattle and corn, add poultry, grapes, strawberries, soybeans, wheat, cotton and forest products.

“There isn’t the infrastructure in northern Iredell for industrial development,” says Jenn Bosser, CEO of the county’s Economic Development Corporation. “You don’t want to put it in just to put it in. We want to protect and preserve.”

Mooresville also wants to protect its open areas.

In 2019, it adopted a OneMooresville Comprehensive Plan, which describes “expanding quality of life through green spaces,” utility and transportation investments, housing choices and “a multi-modal focus on strengthening regional connections to adjacent communities.”

It also looks at partnering with Davidson, Troutman, Kannapolis and surrounding counties for infrastructure investments.

— Kathy Blake is a writer from eastern North Carolina.

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