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Businesses are sprouting up in Nash and Edgecombe counties, where agriculture was once the top economic producer. Reaping that bounty took a lot of sowing, including workforce training, small-business assistance and some urban amenities.
Nash County Economic Development debuted a yearlong digital marketing campaign in October. Each month it features a local business, promoting the local workforce, educational opportunities, industrial parks and lifestyle amenities. It draws a complete picture, framing Nash County as a place where workers and companies can prosper.
John Judd shares his story in the campaign. “I chose a career locally because Cummins Inc. was located in the county,” he says. Working his way up, he’s now plant manager at Cummins-Rocky Mount, a manufacturer of diesel and natural-gas powered engines. It’s on U.S. 301, just north of its namesake city, which straddles the line between Edgecombe and Nash counties. The manufacturer — whose global headquarters is in Indiana and was ranked 128th on the 2019 Fortune 500 list, with $23.8 billion in revenue — employs 1,800 people.
Judd goes on to discuss finding and retaining local workers. “One of the things that we found out recently is, as we were recruiting people out of different states, it was hard to keep them here for two or three years,” he says. “So, several years ago, we made a decision that we were going to tap into the local schools and colleges, and we were going to put everything we had into preparing people within a hundred-mile radius of this plant. These jobs are not factory jobs like they were 20 or 30 years ago. And one of the things that we wanted to make sure of was that young students understood that they could stick around the county and still have a good career.”
Nash and neighboring Edgecombe County, which are east of Raleigh, were built on agriculture, which continues to be a strong contributor. Nash’s 425 farms, for example, compiled a market value of products sold of almost $192 million in 2017, up from $184 million in 2012, according to USDA National Agricultural Statistic Service’s Census of Agriculture. The trend was the same in Edgecombe, where market value for products sold grew to more than $176 million in 2017 from about $156 million in 2012.
Edgecombe and Nash are planting a diverse future. New businesses, workforce training, housing options and urban amenities, including a yoga studio, are homegrown now. “We are still kind of country folks, but with a city flair,” says Norris Tolson, president and CEO of Rocky Mount-based Carolinas Gateway Partnership, an economic-development booster for Edgecombe County, the city of Rocky Mount and the towns of Nashville and Tarboro. “City flair meaning we know how to get things done. One of the advantages that rural North Carolina has is we have tons of good land available and, in our case, we have a lot of land that is now prepared for industrial growth. It increases the tax base and gives our communities good jobs.”
Tolson can rattle off the names of businesses that have recently arrived or expanded. There’s Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.-based Sara Lee Frozen Bakery. It announced earlier this year that it will make more of its tasty treats near Tarboro, where it’s investing $19.8 million in a bakery expansion, adding 108 jobs to the more than 650 that are already there. And thanks to Rocky Mount’s proximity to Interstate 95, Dallas-based Frozen Foods Express Industries is investing $4.7 million and hiring 96 people to work at its new truck-service center. Also in Rocky Mount, the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles is moving into its new headquarters. The largest jobs announcement came in 2017, when China-based Triangle Tyre announced its subsidiary — Triangle Tyre USA — would build a factory to eventually employ about 800 people at the 1,449-acre Kingsboro CSX Select Site.
Tolson says there’s a good reason to remember those announcements. “Each of them brings new investment and new jobs to our communities,” he says. “And more are coming in the months ahead. Even with the COVID-19 [pandemic], the business potential in Rocky Mount, Tarboro, Nashville and Edgecombe County has never been better. Our area has been ‘discovered’ by investors, and the activity and interest level are extremely high.”
Both counties have room to grow more businesses. Nash’s economic-development department lists space at 30 industrial sites and business parks. Next door in Edgecombe, there are 18, including Kingsboro, the megasite prepped for construction that’s often mentioned when large manufacturers are searching for land. “One thing driving us is we have sold out all of our building inventory,” Tolson says. “But we are in the process of beginning four new shell buildings. We’re getting them out of the ground, so people can either lease them or buy them. We have one in Rocky Mount, one in Kingsboro and one in Tarboro, and we’re maybe looking at two in Nashville, all by the end of 2020. So, at year’s end, we’ll have 350,000 to 400,000 square feet of shell-building space coming out of the ground. As we speak, we’re actually working 59 projects in the territory that we’re responsible for. We’re going heavy in Nashville, have about 15 to 18 in Rocky Mount and have announced three projects since Jan. 1.”
Nash County discontinued its association with Carolinas Gateway Partnership in April 2019, and Andy Hagy became its economic director in January. About six months later, it aligned with Raleigh-based Research Triangle Regional Partnership, joining 11 other counties in economic-development efforts. Hagy has been busy ever since. “I immediately began building department of economic development staffing, putting the budget together and putting together a strategic marketing plan, then putting it into action,” he says. “My main objective was to bring Nash County to the forefront of business, new business, especially in the Research Triangle Park region and introduce everybody to the low cost of living and doing business in Nash County. I basically was hanging out our ‘open for business’ sign.”
There is more on Hagy’s to-do list, including marketing a 62,500-square-foot shell building in the Middlesex Corporate Center. It’s expandable to 100,000 square feet and located on U.S. 264, about 25 minutes from Raleigh. “The thing I envision is the increase in our business investment and marketing and deal closing, and creating high-quality jobs such as in advanced manufacturing, food processing, pharmaceuticals and existing businesses,” he says.
Hagy works with local colleges, not only to market Nash’s benefits to businesses but to prepare a workforce. “We work closely with [Nash Community College],” he says. “They are part of our visitation team when we do have a company visit the county and look at properties.”
Cummins-Rocky Mount, for example, partners with Nash Community College on its advanced-manufacturing program, which covers topics such as blueprint reading, machining and industrial safety and supports prospective employers with a work-study program scholarship. As the plant grows over the next decade, plant manager Judd says it will add as many as 700 jobs. He says the program helps make Nash County “a hot spot for the industry.”
Nash Community College, whose Rocky Mount campus is centrally located within the two counties, isn’t working alone. It’s part of a team of several higher education institutions in the region, including North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount. Their game plan revolves around preparing local students for careers that pay well and are found right outside their front door.
Gena Messer-Knode is dean of Wesleyan’s career services and business innovation, and she teaches courses in the college’s undergraduate business degree and MBA programs. In support of local businesses, Wesleyan offers study options in pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, leadership training and networking. “And it’s not just for our students here,” she says. “It also is people coming to the school for our seminars as well as our programs. We have companies that take advantage of the courses. Community partnership has been my goal. I just think it’s so very important. I want our students to have realistic job prospects.”
Wesleyan offers a four-year degree in logistics, for example, which was designed with staffing the Carolina Connector, a 330-acre intermodal hub in Edgecombe County that will move raw materials and finished goods between trucks and trains starting early next year, in mind.
“We are always in the process of looking for new curriculums and new collaborations with commercial partners and programs to develop our goal of producing graduates that would find employment in Rocky Mount and the surrounding area,” Messer-Knode says. “I want people to know that we’re real people, and we’re right here on campus. We have a tremendous nighttime program for adults, and we partner heavily with the employers. If you need us, we’re right here.”
Nash Community College offers more than training for workers. It helps entrepreneurs and small-business owners, too. Tierra Norwood is director of its Small Business Center. “We take entrepreneurs that would like to start a business in Rocky Mount and small-business owners that have a business in Rocky Mount and give them the framework and curriculum that talks about every aspect of business, from pricing strategies to loans to how to access capital,” she says.
SBC’s support includes more than teaching. It has a counselor for Spanish-speaking clients, and it partners with San Francisco-based nonprofit microfinance company Kiva for crowdfunding for minority businesses. Ones that qualify can obtain a $15,000 loan without interest and no payments for six months. Funding comes from other sources, too.
Norwood says a small-business allocation from the state in June is helping small-business owners overcome challenges after their momentum was halted or altered because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We received an additional $10,000 [in September], and we have a Small Business Clinic, where owners can assess the health of their business and have a treatment plan for their issues, like bookkeeping, marketing, finding grants, and I can hire specialists in that field,” she says. “Right now, we’re seeing a lot of businesses who are moving to mobile, like food trucks, or lately I’ve seen a lot of e-commerce [from] people wanting to do mobile retail.”
While Nash and Edgecombe counties are becoming better places to work, they also offer new reasons to call them home. Michael Hicks, 37, grew up in Rocky Mount. His wife, Jessica, 30, is a Bristol, Tenn., native who attended East Tennessee State University on a tennis scholarship. They worked in Johnson City, Tenn., but moved to Rocky Mount about five years ago, when Michael became the fourth generation of his family to operate a veterinary practice in the region. He and his dad, Stuart, run Hicks Animal Clinic.
Michael and Jessica are putting down roots. They bought the Bel Air Chevrolet building on Church Street in downtown Rocky Mount. It’s a two-story building built in the early 1900s that started its life as a funeral home. Now, after the Hickses’ renovations, it is the 18,000-square-foot Bel Air Art Center, which Jessica operates.
The center is home to an arts studio, whose 10 spaces are rented to local artists. The center also sells work from 70 to 80 more. The Hickses’ Willow Tree Yoga studio covers 700 square feet of the lower level. In October, Spaceway Brewing opened, relocating from Rocky Mount Mills, a 200-year-old former textile mill that has been renovated into residential, office and event space.
“Diversity is very important to us, because if you make a place that is diverse with all different kinds of people, they feel comfortable,” Jessica says. “You can find a commonality and likeness. And at the end of the day, you’re your own boss and can make people happy and create this mood that’s very enlightened.”
The Hickses’ story is representative of downtown Rocky Mountain’s evolution. “With women in the working world, sometimes we have to fight for everything, and I wanted something no one could take away from me,” Jessica says. “Now I’m understanding property taxes and fixing things and at the end of the day, we own our own businesses and can make people happy.”
That change also can be seen at Rocky Mount Mills, a 150-acre site that includes 67 apartments and River & Twine, a hotel with 20 tiny homes, on the banks of the Tar River. “Residential is all fully leased and stays leased, with a waitlist between mill loft and village homes,” says development manager Evan Covington Chavez. “The total is 100 units. Businesses are all doing well. We still have some office to lease, but otherwise everything is doing great.”
Sandy Roberson believes Rocky Mount is the “greatest place in America to live.” While that label may be expected from its mayor, which he is, it’s a more personal conclusion of the city that’s shared by Edgecombe and Nash coun-ties. “I was born in Greenville, but I have lived here the entirety of my life, with the exception of a few years while I was at [Hampden-Sydney College] in Virginia.”
Roberson, whose day job is managing partner of Rocky Mount-based Healthview Capital Partners, admits that he has witnessed bad times for the community. But he sees good ones ahead. Rocky Mount Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Farris agrees. “We continue to see more development coming into the Rocky Mount area,” he says. “Our director of economic development — Alan Matthews — has more projects in the works today than perhaps any time.” Those include the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles’ move to the city and the soon-to-be-completed Carolina Connector intermodal hub.
Roberson sat down with Business North Carolina Publisher Ben Kinney to discuss Rocky Mount’s business climate and where it’s headed. His answers were edited for clarity and brevity.
North Carolina’s economy has evolved over the years.
How did those changes affect Rocky Mount, and what was its response?
ROBERSON: Agriculture always has been a big part of our economy. There are train tracks nearby, so we’ve been a railroad town, too. And Rocky Mount Mills — the state’s second-oldest cotton mill — was founded here. Then manufacturers began leaving for lower labor costs under the North American Free Trade Agreement, and not long after Hurricane Floyd brought catastrophic flooding to the region in 1999. Our local economy was devastated as businesses and jobs disappeared. Our population shrunk — 57,685 in 2010 to 54,644 in 2018, according to N.C. Office of State Budget and Management.
But there are exciting things happening in Rocky Mount. For example, we’re becoming a logistics hub again. Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX Corp. is developing its $158 million intermodal hub — the Carolina Connector — which is expected to be done early next year. Its three cranes are expected to move more than 100,000 shipping containers between trains and trucks every year. And after Interstate 87 is complete between Rocky Mount and Norfolk, Va., it and Interstate 95 put us within about a four-hour drive of five major East Coast ports: Norfolk, Charleston, S.C., Wilmington, Morehead City and Baltimore. And Rocky Mount-Wilson Regional Airport, whose runway is 7,099 feet long, gives us the ability to handle air cargo.
What attracts businesses to Rocky Mount?
ROBERSON: Many people sit down and try to figure out how to recruit industry to their town. And many times, they fail to fully appreciate the attributes that they have. We look at what Rocky Mount has historically had and ask how do we build on it. Maybe it takes a slightly different direction than in the past. We’re playing to our strengths, and we’re perfectly positioned for growth.
I sit on the board of Rocky Mount-based Carolinas Gateway Partnership, which handles economic-development efforts in the city and several nearby communities. Its president and CEO, Norris Tolson, says for every piece and parcel of available land in Nash County, including Whitaker Business and Industry Center, he has three inquiries. There is a tremendous amount of interest. Corning, N.Y.-based Corning Inc., for example, recently spent $89 million to develop an 800,000-square-foot distribution center at the Kingsboro Business Park, which is about 7 miles east of Rocky Mount. It will handle Corning Valor glass, which is used in pharmaceutical packaging. [The plant will] employ about 100 people.
We’ve been mentioned among possible relocation sites for large manufacturers, such as automakers, for many years because of our proximity to the 1,449-acre Kingsboro CSX Select Site. That finally got some traction in 2017, when China-based Triangle Tyre announced its subsidiary — Triangle Tyre USA — was building a factory that would eventually employ about 800 people there. While that project was kind of our first big win, it unfortunately has stalled because of the current trade dispute. But we hear over and over that it will happen.
Interest is growing in Rocky Mount’s downtown. How has the city’s new event center helped?
ROBERSON: We opened the 165,000-square-foot Rocky Mount Event Center in 2018. It can host a variety of functions, including sports, music, entertainment, weddings and special events. It was gaining traction before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. That put the brakes on it and other downtown developments, including a possible hotel.
We’re seeing more investors from outside the region come and buy property. I believe, as time goes on, that we’ll see a complete downtown revitalization, especially once we figure out how to deal with COVID-19, so we can have lives that are closer to the way they were prepandemic. Take youth sports, for example. The event center’s general manager, David Joyner, says most of those tournaments were canceled this spring, especially up and down the East Coast. And while they wait for a safe return to play, their organizers are rewriting their plans, not only how they run their events but where they are held, too. More people are looking at Rocky Mount as a destination. David said we would be almost completely booked, if it was safe to do so, based on the number of recent inquiries from event organizers. That’s exciting to hear.
— Kathy Blake is a writer from eastern North Carolina.