Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Community close up: Johnston County’s diverse economy keeps it growing at a fast pace

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Johnston County shares a border with Wake County. Its accelerated, diverse growth is making it a player to watch.

Fueled by upswings in manufacturing, new highway construction, multiple education programs and a
prosperous agriculture presence, Johnston County is the state’s fastest-growing county.

Clayton, the state’s fastest-growing city and a major player in the pharmaceutical industry, gains five residents per day, according to the Census Bureau. Its population increased 277% from 2000 to 2020.  

Smithfield, the county seat and home of Johnston Community College, is 30 miles from Raleigh and a draw for shopping, music, theater and food festivals.

With 234,778 residents, Johnston is the 11th-largest county in North Carolina. Census data shows population overall rose 28% from 2010 to 2020, and 8.7% from 2020 to July 2022, pushing it on a course to make it fifth behind Wake, Mecklenburg, Guilford and Forsyth. 

“Johnston is a very diverse county, and when you get along the Wake border, places like Clayton and Cleveland Township, you have a lot of subdivisions and commercial development, pharmaceutical operations, that kind of thing,” says county Extension Director Bryant Spivey. “Then the antithesis of that is a community like Bentonville in the southeastern part of the county, where it’s mostly rural and agrarian in that area. So, there’s a lot of variety.”

Interstate 95 cuts through the center of the county. On its west side, 11 foreign-based manufacturing and medical companies have set up shop. 

Novo Nordisk, one of the county’s largest employers and a manufacturer of medicines to fight diabetes and other chronic diseases, has had facilities in Clayton since the 1990s.

In June, BioRealty of California announced plans to invest $27 million there for a three-building biosciences park on 67 acres, starting with a 100,000-square-foot shell building. 

And in February, Charlotte-based commercial real estate and investment
firm Johnston Flex announced a $20 million commitment to build 42 West Business Park in Clayton with a 125,000-square-foot space near I-40 and the future I-42 interchange.

Global healthcare company Grifols Therapeutics’ Clayton manufacturing facility is Johnston’s third-largest employer, at 1,000-plus.

Caterpillar, the world’s leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, diesel and natural gas engines, industrial gas turbines and diesel-electric locomotives, employs nearly 500 in Clayton and partners with Johnston Community College for a pre-apprenticeship program that prepares high school students for manufacturing assembly jobs. Pre-apprentices move into registered apprenticeship jobs and train 32 hours per week while pursuing an associate degree in applied engineering at Johnston Community College.

“Apprenticeship programs are good for businesses because it creates a pipeline of talent for the businesses,” Vic Baluis, Caterpillar’s Clayton facility manager, says in a release. “We get an opportunity to work with these apprentices and provide them the necessary training and awareness of the business processes that we want them to have.”

East of I-95 are 249,000 acres of forestland and 220,000 acres of cropland and pastures, according to local government statistics. Soybeans, corn and tobacco – the top three crops statewide – are grown there, with tobacco accounting for $35 million in gross income on 2,400 farms. 

“A lot of that is exported, about 60%,” Spivey says. “We grow the best in the world, and it’s goes to premium brands in China, the European Union and Japan.”

Chris Johnson, director of Johnston County Economic Development, says the county’s mixed bag has one vital ingredient.

“There are six cylinders that work together for our economic engine to run,” Johnson says. “That’s small business, manufacturing, medical, home building, travel and tourism and agriculture. And the fuel to make that run is the education system.”

This fall, Johnston Community College enrolled its largest-ever freshman class at 4,803 students, a 10% increase from 2022. Programs such as JoCo Works, BioWork and Early College Academy segue to career options and workforce training.

Johnston Community College, Johnston County Schools, Novo Nordisk and Grifols team up to offer BioWork certification to high school juniors and seniors.

“Johnston Community College values our partnerships in the region and we look forward to more collaborations in the near future,” says Johnston Community College President Dr. Vern Lindquist. “The heart of what we do is providing access to quality education, which strengthens us all.” 

“The passing of a recent, voter-approved $177 million public school bond referendum and the full funding of the school board’s requested budget proves the value our county places on education,” says County Commission Chair Butch Lawter. “The board further affirmed those values by establishing the Johnston Community College Commissioners Promise Program, which is now providing tuition assistance to
eligible students graduating from Johnston County Public Schools. The county also received its first Triple-A bond rating from Standards & Poor’s and Moody’s on a recent $30 million school bond sale.” 

Early College Academy, a five-year school in which graduates receive a high school diploma and two-year associate degree, opened in 2008 as a partnership between Johnston County Schools and Johnston Community College and is funded by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. The Academy is by application only and, according to websites, “represents a unique combination of public school and community college collaboration. It is a high school of choice where students are expected to take college classes in addition to high school core courses. Students are expected to continue their education at a four-year college upon graduation. Students eligible to apply for Early College admissions will successfully complete their eighth-grade year, will be registering for ninth grade at a Johnston County high school and will reside within the Johnston County Schools
attendance area. This non-traditional school is specifically for students who have the
ability to be high achievers, are capable of doing honors work and can meet high
academic standards. Special consideration is given to first-generation college students
and under-served students.”

BioWork is a 136-hour, non-credit continuing education path toward entry-level positions
as a process technician, according to Johnston Community College. It’s popular with
Novo Nordisk and Grifols, which also send employees to the Workforce Development Center in Clayton.

The Center offers specific biopharmaceutical training for local companies in partnership with Johnston County Economic Development, public schools and local pharma industries. According to a Johnston Community College release, “the purpose of the Workforce Development Center is to create an education and training center to support local industries by offering learning opportunities from elementary through post-secondary in science and biotech, and other areas of economic influence within the county. Currently, the college offers the AAS Bioprocess Technology degree program. The BioWork certificate and other skill training programs are also offered at the Workforce Development Center along with small business seminars and customized corporate and industry courses.”

“It’s all truly a public-private partnership, a collaboration between the economic development office, the county commission, the college and all our biotechnology and pharma companies,” Johnson says. The 30,000-square-foot center underwent $1.3 million in renovations in 2018. 

“When it was built, it had classrooms to the left and right and was more suited to reading of books and traditional lectures. But it’s a completely renovated workspace. You walk in, and it’s just like walking into a pharmaceutical environment. We’re proud of that. You can take that certificate over to Novo Nordisk or Grifols and potentially have a $50,000 to $60,00 income.

“There’s also welding, HVAC, electronics and other fields. We’re hoping to show that you’re always going to continue to learn, and you don’t have to go the four-year route.”

The Clayton Bypass (U.S. 70) is a new 10.7-mile, four-lane divided freeway from I-40 to U.S. 70 in Johnston and Wake counties.

Road work
When the complete 540 highway project is finished, possibly next year, and I-40 is widened from four to eight lanes and U.S. 70 becomes I-42, Johnston will be one of few N.C. counties with three interstates.

Eventually, I-42 will be a 137-mile interstate from Raleigh to Morehead City.

“There really are two transportation projects that are critical,” Johnson says. “The 540 southern loop (on the southeast side of Raleigh) and the widening of I-40 out of Raleigh. The 540 loop will make Johnston County a little closer to Raleigh and other universities. Everyone will be 15 minutes closer to everyone.”

As roadwork merges the two counties’ borders, “The construction of new highways linking Clayton to Wake County strategically positions us to attract businesses and foster economic growth, benefiting both residents and our town’s status as an innovation hub,” says Clayton Town Manager Rich Cappola. “As we look to the future, the expansion of the interstate system, including Interstate 42, and the completion of the 540 loop around Raleigh will enhance accessibility and connectivity, bringing more job opportunities and economic growth to our area.” 

“Johnston already is a commuter county,” Johnson says. “We have in our most recent report about 110,000residents/workers in our labor shed, but 65 to 70% leave every day to work elsewhere. So, it’s an opportunity to be closer to Raleigh and other urban corridors where big announcements like Wolfspeed, VinFast and other suppliers and manufacturers and ancillary industries can be supported as well.

“Obviously, the residential will be attractive, and if we do our job well enough to recruit industries, it will create a denser workforce to where individuals would rather work in their home county. We could be well over 300,000 residents in five years.”

House work
The Johnston-Wake border could gain thousands of residents on the Johnston side
by mid-2024.

The Copper District multi-use development of about 300 condominiums and other housing options, plus restaurants, retail and a hotel, billed as “the Triangle’s new front door,” will be at the crossroads of the new I-40/I-540 and Future I-42 connector just outside Clayton. The 300 acres of former farmland, the Penny Farm owned by the local family since the 1930s, will have office space, outdoor dining and a gathering spot called Farmhouse Park.

“The growth that we are experiencing in Clayton has been truly remarkable. We are fortunate to have master-planned housing communities such as Ashcroft, River Mews and Carolina Overlook in the works, which reflect the growing appeal of Clayton as a desirable place to call home,” Cappola says. “The Copper District along N.C. 42 West, in particular, is a game-changing addition, offering an integrated live-work-play environment reminiscent of Raleigh’s North Hills as our western gateway into town.

“We’re excited about our ongoing commercial and industrial investments, including the Biome biopharma industrial park. These developments not only provide much-needed housing options and retail conveniences but also offer new job opportunities that contribute to our town’s diversity and vibrancy.”

Also under construction: The Waterfront District at Flowers Plantation near N.C. 42 adjacent to Clayton is projected to be ready for residents in mid- to late 2024 and will include restaurants, a hotel and housing options including 312 apartments and about 315 townhomes, according to a WRAL report.

“From my perspective as town manager, I see a wide range of opportunities on the horizon. Opportunities for residents to enjoy diverse live-work-play options, for newcomers to establish roots in Clayton, for active community members to embrace expanded recreational opportunities and for job seekers to find fulfilling careers right here in our town,” Cappola says. 

“We need to be going with rooftops and bringing in industry so people don’t have to drive to Wake County,” Lawter says. “At the same time, agriculture is still a growing industry that we have to maintain in the county despite the billions in pharmaceuticals. We have to preserve our farmland.

“The Board of Commissioners has purposefully moved toward an emphasis on quality residential developments. The move to conditional zoning has helped add a better quality of life for residents in communities that are now more focused on promoting walkability, open space and parks. The Copper District in Clayton and the Eastfield development
in Selma tie into our ongoing commitment to the preservation of farmland and
open space.”

Banks Miniature Horse Farm creates an atmosphere where animals are admired and respected.

Working the land
Johnston’s east side supports field crops (tobacco, corn, soybeans), fruits and vegetable fields, livestock farms, agritourism and flower greenhouses.

The county’s 10,000 acres of sweet potatoes gross more than $16 million annually
for growers.

“We have a lot of other vegetables, but there are agronomic crops as well,” Spivey says, “as well as nurseries and sod farms with businesses that are serving the growing population in the county with landscaping and that kind of thing. 

“In addition, we have a growing agritourism sector in the county for folks who seek to visit farms and purchase products from their local farms, whether it be fresh fruits or vegetables. Some people just come to visit.”

Spivey emphasizes that there is more to farming, and owning a farm, than planting and harvesting crops, or raising livestock.

“The community college does a tremendous amount of specific training programs that are not necessarily toward a degree, like QuickBooks, so they can upgrade their skills,” he says. “There’s a wide range of things there and at N.C. State, like an agribusiness degree, or a degree in agronomy or horticulture. You can study animal science, or soil science. There is good training around here for our farms. And the extension office does
training for farmworkers.”

Spivey says he lives on a rural road near several farms. In an article for the Johnston County Visitors Bureau about the N.C. Cooperative Extension, and the tasks facing farm owners and workers, he wrote: “They often fulfill multiple roles of equipment operation, basic farm duties, machinery repairs, truck driving, secretarial or administrative work or even as a foreman for the seasonal workers. Depending on the size and scope of the farm there could be zero to 20, or even more, full-time workers.” And, “When you consider the wage rate, housing, transportation, and fees, labor is expensive on farms and represents a significant portion of total production cost. Farmers do everything possible to make labor as efficient and easy as possible to minimize costs and keep their workers in good health.”

USDA statistics in 2019 that summarized percentages of full- and part-time jobs in agricultural and food sectors said direct, on-farm employment nationwide accounted
for 2.6 million jobs, or 1.3% of U.S. employment.

“Farmers are the salt of the earth, dedicated to the work of feeding people and growing commodities that people need,” he says. “So, when you boil it down, 1.3% of the population is doing the farm work; 1.3% of the population is working to feed us, and this is a profession on which we all depend.”

“Preservation of farmland and open space are integral parts of the Land Use Plan,” Lawter says. “Farms are still the largest economic engine in Johnston County, even with the billions invested in our robust manufacturing industries. We believe both industries are not mutually exclusive and that the county can continue to thrive and be a major economic driver for farming and manufacturing.”

Making it all work
In November 2020, Johnston County Economic Development released a 16-page report titled “Is the Triangle Ready to Grow with JoCo?” that looked in-depth at:

• Education (the Workforce Development Center, community college and public schools);

• Business recruitment (Grifols, Novo Nordisk, fueling giant OPW and Dollar General, which invested $13 million for a 320,000-square-foot storage facility in Clayton);

• Transportation ($2 billion in local funds dedicated to improving transit including light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit; rail use; public transit; and proximity to ports); and

Housing (Flowers Plantation’s 3,000 acres, 40 neighborhoods and 8,000 homes in
Clayton; Portofino’s nature trails and homesites up to 5 acres; and several other mixed-use and 55+ communities).

The EDC adopted its Envision Johnston Comprehensive Land Use Plan in August 2023, which chronicles steering committee meetings, four public forums and four online surveys that netted more than 3,000 responses.

Themes of the 58-page document include recreation (trails, nature preserves), green space (conservation of open space and natural resources), agriculture, housing (affordability, density, etc.), growth impacts and management and provision of infrastructure services.

“The plan was developed through an exhaustive public engagement process, where public input was maintained through online surveys, public forums, and various meetings over the course of 18 months,” Lawter says. “The first components of the plan are already being addressed with the county currently prioritizing land development codes and an update to our comprehensive transportation plan to be implemented in the near future.
“There are plenty of challenges that Johnston County faces, especially because of our size and the current level of growth we’re experiencing. Infrastructure will always be a priority as we diligently plan ahead for the continued growth in our region,” Lawter says, “A new wastewater treatment facility is projected to be operational in the third quarter of 2024. The county already has a project under design to expand the new plant, and the expansion will be bid in mid-2024. In addition, we have an existing project under construction to add capacity at the water treatment plant. In order to meet long-term water demands, we have a new water supply source and a water treatment plant planned to be operational by 2030.”

What’s next?
“In the next five years, Clayton and Johnston County will continue to evolve as thriving communities,” Cappola says. “Our long-range strategic plans prioritize a balance between development and preservation, upholding our unique identity as a close-knit town while promoting economic growth and environmental sustainability.

“Anticipating strong population growth, driven by the interest in new residential development opportunities, we foresee expanded commercial growth and the addition of new retail and recreational offerings. This growth will bolster our workforce, supporting existing and emerging industries.”

“The Board of Commissioners,” Lawter says, “understands that infrastructure planning is a big part of what we do and planning for future growth and sustainability will always be a critical part of our mission.”

Johnson says the county’s future will have more young families, more retirees, more commuters and a need for more schools, as Wake County becomes closer.

“We see a ton of new families, but we also see grandparents. The market is changing daily,” he says. “I think the different pockets are being addressed, and the needs are being met. The (November 2020) report has a picture of a small kid wearing big, grown-up clothes.
In five years, those clothes will fit nicer and be less baggy. We want to provide the services of the larger communities, but maintain the climate and culture people love. We’re not
that far.”

— Kathy Blake is a writer from eastern North Carolina.

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