Thursday, June 20, 2024

Community close up: Southeastern N.C. boasts mountains and beaches — and a network of industrial settings.

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Southeast counties include: Anson, Bladen, Brunswick, Columbus, Craven, Cumberland, Duplin, Hoke, Jones, Lenoir, Montgomery, Moore, New Hanover, Onslow, Pender, Richmond, Robeson, Sampson, Scotland
and Wayne.


Southeastern North Carolina’s 20-county region stretches from picturesque trails and lakes of the Uwharrie Mountains to more than 100 miles of Atlantic Ocean shoreline, a panorama of open land, energetic cities, agriculture and historic small towns.

Sprinkled in are 16 technical and community colleges and seven interstates, a perk for the locale halfway between New York and Miami.

“We like to think it’s the ideal setting. That’s how we market it,” says Steve Yost, president of North Carolina’s Southeast, a public-private partnership in Elizabethtown that works with business and government leaders to boost economic growth. “From a quality-of-life perspective, we have a lot of diversity. If someone wants a coastal environment, we have those towns and beaches. Then there’s a lot of ambiance in our rural areas, and off to the very west, you have the oldest mountain chain in North America.”

The counties have 1.85 million residents and a labor force of 904,000.

They also have a common investment.

The counties are linked by 137 business and industrial parks, several benefitting from a from a $5 million appropriation in 2021 from the N.C. General Assembly. Twenty-three applications to North Carolina’s Southeast’s Project Development Fund were approved, giving sites in 18 counties money for design, construction, road access and water-sewer, further enhancing a site trail landscape that already includes
30 Fortune 500 companies and more than 60 with international roots.

A portion of the $5 million also went toward “large site identification analysis.”

“What we did is scour all the counties in our region for land tracts that might have potential, and we hired an engineering firm to do that, and it was completed 30 days ago,” Yost says, “and it identified 56 potential sites of land tracts across the region that have promise of viable industrial sites. We think about
15 or 20 have strong potential to become bona fide shovel-ready sites over time.”

That step, he says, is up to the sites’ local organizations.

“It’s our mission to help create opportunities for our counties to gain new jobs, new private investment,” Yost says. “There’s a lot that goes into that. Our main ingredient in regards to our success and capabilities is collaboration, and we have many moving parts to make our organization work, many partners in the public and private sectors.”

In its 40,000-square-foot Burgaw facility, Mojotone builds amps, sound-system cabinetry and components for electric guitars.

An additional $28 million has come from local governments, private funding, Golden LEAF and elsewhere. “Those funds are being leveraged to the individual projects, by the local economic development commissions, and we’ve been tracking the progress and status.” Yost says. Ten of the
23 p
rojects are complete. Seven involved development of shell buildings, while projects in Anson and Sampson counties are planning for new industrial sites and parks.

In Scotland County, a 50,000-square-foot shell building was finished in January and has received interest from a wood products manufacturer and agricultural processing company. In Onslow County, Project Frontier is the code for a new industrial park in Jacksonville on 50-plus acres.

With grants from N.C.’s Southeast, Golden LEAF and the state’s Electric Membership Cooperatives, the Onslow project was designed, permitted and built in about a year, says Mark Sutherland, executive director of Jacksonville Onslow Economic Development. Before it was completed, the group had a letter of intent from a light-industrial company that plans to buy the entire project, “As far as economic development projects go, this one was among the fastest and most successful,” he says.

Other completed or near-completed projects include: Brunswick County (Mid-Atlantic Rail Park), Wayne (shell building), Craven (industrial park infrastructure development), Pender (water and sewer expansion), Moore (infrastructure and due diligence planning), Columbus (site identification analysis) and Duplin (industrial park master plans).

Target industries in the 20 counties are advanced textiles, agribusiness and food processing, aerospace and defense, metalworking and distribution and logistics, the latter offering visual proof of success in the enormous container ships that enter and exit the Port of Wilmington.

“The Port of Wilmington is certainly a differentiator for us in our market,” says Scott Satterfield, CEO of Wilmington Business Development. “The investment and commitment the state of North Carolina continues to show to that asset is a true selling point for us as we push the near-port model — warehouse, distribution, advanced manufacturing with an import/export component located within 15 miles of the port.”

“The port was a key factor in the location of (India-based) Epsilon, because of the need to import materials into the plant,” Yost says of the recent addition to Mid-Atlantic Park in Leland, in Brunswick County. Epsilon manufactures graphite material that goes into EV batteries. It’s Epsilon’s first U.S. facility.

Transportation assets also include the Department of Defense port, Military Ocean Terminal at Sunny Point; rail lines through CSX, Norfolk Southern and North Carolina Railroad; commercial airports in Wilmington, Fayetteville, New Bern and Jacksonville; and interstates 1-40, I-95, I-74, I-295, I-275 and the future I-42.

Twelve counties are certified Work Ready Communities, and NCWorks helps with customized training, pre-employment assistance, facilities for equipment training and business incentives. As a region, the 20 counties have seven military installations, $3.4 billion in annual spending by the Department of Defense and 135,000 active duty, reserve and Guard soldiers, making it the largest military presence on the East Coast.


Fayetteville: Gross domestic product – $24.2 billion. The Fayetteville Metropolitan Statistical Area was Cumberland and Hoke counties but expanded in 2020 to include Harnett, which borders Cumberland to the north. According to the Census Bureau, this is the 108th-largest MSA in the country. “What they’ve done is leverage up I-95 and some other assets, and the military, to really build up product development,” Yost says, “and the private sector has noticed. They had some shell and spec buildings fully developed by private developers, and that’s the ideal way to do it. When the private sector sees opportunity and comes in and does the investment.”

Fayetteville Technical Community College, Fayetteville State University and Methodist University specialize in workforce development with trades and industries that contribute to transitioning soldiers. Methodist plans a medical school, in conjunction with Cape Fear Valley Hospital, to open in 2026. Combined with expanded training at Fayetteville Tech and Fayetteville State, “It will play a pivotal role in addressing the escalating demand for healthcare in our area while opening up new career opportunities for the local workforce,” says Robert Van Geons, president and CEO of Fayetteville Cumberland Economic Development.

He says 112 projects were added in the Fayetteville area in 2023, and his EDC had 55 additional visits and also is focusing on international recruitment. “Our team is working with a wide range of companies, including clients that work in advanced manufacturing, particularly those in the energy storage and electric vehicle space,” he says. Companies in logistics, defense, food processing, textiles and cybersecurity also have interest.

Fayetteville/Cumberland lists 54 industrial/commercial/ business sites. The EDC was awarded $262,000 from the N.C.’s Southeast Regional Partnership in 2022, plus $937,000 to the county from Golden LEAF, to improve its 159-acre Sand Hill Road site between I-95 and N.C. 87. “Clearing and grading of 40 acres is nearly complete, and the property is being actively marketed,” Van Geons says. “Also included was the rough grading of an access road that connects Sandhill Road to Production Drive to improve site accessibility.” The site is designated shovel-ready.

Last December, the Federal Railroad Administration awarded $8.2 billion toward extending the Piedmont Corridor between Raleigh and Richmond, Virginia. “We’re excited that a route from Fayetteville to Raleigh, with intermediary stops in Lillington and Fuquay-Varina is one of the seven intercity rails being studied,” Van Geons says, noting the rail line would aid those who commute for employment or housing. “The preparation of a scope, schedule and total cost estimate of the Fayetteville-Raleigh corridor is being launched with a $500,00 federal grant.”

Goldsboro: GDP – $5.7 billion. Wayne County also includes Mount Olive, which crosses into Duplin County. It’s home to the University of Mount Olive and the Mount Olive pickle company.

Wayne also is home to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and Wayne Community College, which offers customized training through its Business & Industry Center.

The 2,500-acre Global TransPark site in Kinston that facilitates air, rail and road transportation to support business needs is next door in Lenoir County and received $400 million in state funding last September for construction of an aircraft maintenance facility.

Mark Pope, former president of the Wayne County Development Alliance, is president of the N.C. Global TransPark Economic Development Region.  “Our biggest site is ParkEast, in Goldsboro, with two shells going up,” he says.

The Wayne County Development Alliance’s new five-year strategic plan begins this year to assist economic development, and marketing, Pope says. The group “is what pulls everyone together. That’s their mission. They’re very valuable in each community, with helping things move faster.”

Jacksonville: GDP – $9.9 billion. The MSA covers Onslow County, which had a 2020 population of 204,576. Because of the military — Camp Lejeune, New River Air Station — Jacksonville is the youngest city in the U.S., with an average age of 22.8. The Jacksonville/Onslow area is predicted to be a high-growth corridor over the next 20 years, Yost says.

Top – Coastal Beverage has a home in the Pender Commerce Park. Below – FedEx Freight, a less-than-truckload carrier, is also located in the Pender Commerce Park.

Sutherland agrees, noting the corridor has been developing at an above-average pace for 20 years after major improvements to N.C. 17 were made. “Second, job growth in both New Hanover and Onslow counties has fueled growth in the ‘commuter-shed,’ that is the corridor connecting the two markets. Third, industrial sites are developing not just in response to increasing demand for that product in the marketplace, but the juxtaposition of the Hampstead Bypass in relation to the corridor.”

New Bern: GDP – $6.4 billion.
The Inner Banks area of Craven and Jones counties also adds Pamlico to the MSA. New Bern and Havelock are principal cities. “This is very much a growing area and has had successful wins in economic development the last few years,” Yost says. “There’s going to be a very large site, and with Highway 70 to New Bern being named as Future I-42, there certainly is a lot of potential there.”

Craven received $370,000 in an N.C. Department of Commerce grant and $25,000 from Duke Energy that, added with county investment funds, totals $500,000 for infrastructure at Craven County Industrial Park, which counts 16 tenants. Carolina GSE recently purchased the Craven 100 Alliance shell building, an investment of $2 million. Private developer Bayfront Development is under contract for six acres to build a 20,000-square-foot shell, which will be marketed as warehouse space.

Wilmington: GDP – $18.2 billion. Brunswick County was removed from this area in 2010 and placed with Myrtle Beach-area towns by the Office of Management and Budget but returned in 2023 to join New Hanover and Pender counties. Leland, in Brunswick County, had a 2010 population of 13,527 but has grown to 33,251 in 2023 and is listed as the fastest-growing city in the state.

“We are a region with many natural advantages,” says Satterfield, whose organization contracts with New Hanover and Pender counties, “but it is our business-savvy leadership that sets us apart from competing business destinations.”

Satterfield cites the Pender Commerce Park on the U.S. 421 industrial corridor, a few miles north of Wilmington, which received $492,000 to enhance infrastructure. It draws workers from a five-county area, including Bladen and Columbus, for its more than 1,000 jobs and $500 million of capital investment in 1 million square feet of space.

“There’s nearly a 20-year legacy of economic development activity at the park,” he says. “After years of due diligence and marketing, in 2014, New York-based Acme Smoked Fish became the park’s first tenant, opening a major East Coast food processing facility. Acme’s move brought with it state-of-the-art infrastructure — industrial-quality power, water, sewer and telecommunications for the entire
350-acre park. It quickly drew attention from logistics and distribution operations,
attracting companies like Empire Distributors, FedEx Freight, Coastal Beverage, Polyhose, Amazon, Maersk and Home Depot, among others, in quick succession from 2015 to 2023.”

Grant money also went to Wilmington International Airport’s business park to extend water and wastewater utilities for its Phase II.

“These strategic investments better position our important properties for economic development projects,” Satterfield says. “Both parks are building on a legacy of positive results, and we expect the momentum to continue. Infrastructure investments aren’t a one-and-done need. Our leaders understand we’ve got to continuously invest in the physical assets and human capacity necessary to accommodate forward-looking, globally-minded companies.”


Overall, Southeastern N.C. is second in the U.S. in food manufacturing and processing, with seven Department of Agriculture research stations, more than 130 food processing companies with 26,000 employees, and more than 12,000 working in agriculture and farming.

There also are three community value-added processing centers.

Wayne County has approximately 1,750 farms on 242,000 acres, about 48% of the county’s total land, according to N.C. State Extension. The county ranks third in the state in agriculture income with its diverse offerings of cattle, swine, poultry, cotton, tobacco, corn, soybeans, wheat and assorted vegetables.

Last December, it was announced that Wayne’s Coker Feed Mill will receive $75,000 from the North Carolina Rural Infrastructure Authority to expand its business. The money is part of Gov. Roy Cooper’s $2 million in funding statewide, part of 10 grants to rural communities. The expansion should create nine jobs and bring private investment of $614,300.

Food companies represented in the region include Butterball, Campbell’s, Mt. Olive, Smithfield, Perdue Farms, Goldsboro Milling Company, House of Raeford, Case Farms, Mission, Prestage Farms, Sanderson Farms, Villari, SRO Originals and Valley Proteins.

“The economic impact of the agricultural industry is so important to us,” Pope says. “We have to support those farms and what they do. If we don’t have farms, we all suffer in time, so it’s a huge cluster we make sure we’re attentive to.”

Adds Satterfield, “New Hanover and Pender counties accommodate a wide variety of both emerging and legacy industries – from fiber optics and aircraft engines to consumer foods, pharmaceutical testing and plastics.”

He says the coastal area’s success stems from investments made 10 or more years ago. “They yield a return that will be noticeable 20 to 30 years into the future, maybe more,” he says. “WBD will continue to advocate for ongoing readiness of well-positioned business properties served by the most modern infrastructure and amenities.”

Van Geons is equally enthused about his market. “Fayetteville and Cumberland County have everything you’d expect in a dynamic city — quality education, employment, professional sports, world-renowned museums, award-winning arts, international cuisine and varied entertainment options. The biggest asset in our ‘Can Do Carolina’ community is our people. We always find a way, we care for one another, we protect the world and we always go further.”

Aerospace Corridor unites aviation, military and education with economic strength.

In 2014, a few retired military pilots, an engineer and a doctor turned their fondness for aviation into a Christian mission of serving active and transitioning military whose lives, professionally or through personal need, are touched by flight.

They bought a Piper Cherokee 6 to use for humanitarian work, transporting wounded warriors to and from appointments at Walter Reed and Bethesda medical centers to avoid the crowded confusion of public airports. 

“Most have to deal with PTSD, and they don’t do well with noise and confined spaces,” says Ken Hadaway. “Most of the vets have been downrange (deployed in a war zone), and they’re having to re-acclimate back to civilian life. And in their stories, the story of Christ always comes up. Every vet is like, ‘I saw Christ in this, because I’m here to tell my story.’”

In 2021, the Christian mission became Sovereign Aerospace, a 501(c)(3) with a flight school, repair and maintenance division and 25 employees with 16 aircraft. Hadaway is its COO. Its concept a decade ago foreshadowed a metamorphosis of eastern North Carolina’s growing presence of aviation, aerospace and military blended into what is labeled as the Aerospace Corridor.

Sovereign is among more than 280 aerospace-related companies and 450-plus aerospace suppliers rooted in a landscape that began, officially, in 2017 with a signed proclamation identifying U.S. 70’s route through Wayne, Lenoir and Craven counties as a place “to support and enhance the long-term prosperity of the Eastern Region and The State of NC.”

Sovereign Aerospace’s flight school trains civilians and veterans in Carthage, in Moore County, and Elizabethtown, in Bladen. It provides medical transport and aviation services in Pinehurst, trains drone pilots and helps veterans with entrepreneurial efforts, “to get their dreams off the ground.”

“Several veterans are trying to cope with life in general. Guys are so used to being told where to be, what to do, what gear to have, and they wake up one day and no one’s telling them,” says Hadaway. “So they turn to drugs or alcohol because they’ve lost their network. They’ve lost their ability to adapt. We create that community where we can relate. We’ve been there. And it’s all God-centered.”

Seven major Air Force, Marine and Army installations are within the Aerospace Corridor and its vicinity. The corridor’s original boundaries have expanded to encompass four regional and two international airports, the 2,500-acre Global TransPark multimodal transportation complex in Kinston, and a workforce of 1.4 million in a 60-mile radius.

Craven Community College’s Havelock campus has courses in eight aviation-maintenance career paths. Sovereign Aerospace is partnering with Bladen Community College for an apprenticeship curriculum beginning this fall. The Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina counts 2,600 aerospace-related degrees awarded in the state annually.

Spirit AeroSystems operates a 33,000-square-foot training center in Kinston.

“Aerospace is critical, and the beautiful thing about North Carolina, and especially down east, is there’s a lot of space,” says Hadaway. “You’re not dealing with limited airspace like you’d get around Raleigh, Greensboro or Wilmington.”

Twenty-nine major flight companies have addresses in the corridor, including Boeing, GE Aviation, Honeywell Aviation and Pratt & Whitney.

“Back when it was just three counties, we were trying to tell our story,” says Mark Pope, president of the Global TransPark Economic Development Region. “That’s how it started out, as a way to take rural North Carolina along Highway 70 and market it. And we have a big impact with the military bases. The economic impact is huge. We say this is our automotive industry east of I-95.”

The military presence includes Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Wayne County
(5,000 personnel); Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in Craven (6,800 active military); Camp Lejeune, th
e Marine Corps Air Station in New River, Fort Liberty in Fayetteville, Military Ocean Terminal at Sunny Point and Pope Army Airfield in Cumberland County. Cherry Point has Fleet Readiness Center East, the Naval air maintenance and repair depot, which employs 3,500 civilians including 600 engineers.

Including family members, it’s about 38,000 people, Pope says. 

The original three counties have four airports in Pikeville, Kinston, Mount Olive and New Bern. 

“We frequently tout eastern North Carolina’s defense and aerospace cluster in our outreach,” says Mark Sutherland, executive director of Jacksonville Onslow Economic Development.

Marine Corps Air Station New River is 4 miles south of downtown Jacksonville and has more than 6,300 active-duty military.

“The region is not only home to a myriad of aviation assets and entities — commercial, military and general — but ripe with workforce development infrastructure, a skilled workforce, engineering prowess and industrial capacity for expansion,” Sutherland says. The Marine Corps base has
been the county’s primary economic engine since 1941, remaining its largest employer.

  Fort Liberty plays the same role in Cumberland County, with more than 47,000 military personnel and about 20,000 Department of Defense civilian and contract employees. Fort Liberty provides a local economic impact of over $8.8 billion annually.

Pope sees the Aerospace Corridor edging west, along future Interstate 42 toward Johnston County. “It will create more opportunities for industry, retail, food and to make sure we all have the right marketing pieces to move products down the interstates to our ports, so those interstates are so valuable to us.”

The Global TransPark in Kinston, in Lenoir County, supports aerospace and aviation, advanced manufacturing, logistics and exporting, defense and security and emergency response. The TransPark is home to Spirit AeroSystems’ Composite Center of Excellence, a 33,000-square-foot training center with a composites training lab, operated by Lenoir Community College. A $30 million flight training and corporate office facility was approved by state lawmakers last year.

“We create jobs,” Pope says of the GTP. “The MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul) salary is two-and-a-half to three times the average wage in these counties, $80,000 to $90,000 a year or more. People sometimes want to graduate high school and say they’re going to Raleigh for jobs, but they can make a darn good living in eastern North Carolina, where the cost of living is less.”

He cites defense contractor Draken International, which trains its staff and has 21 fighter jets at Global TransPark. The Texas-based company owns the world’s largest commercial fleet of privately owned tactical aircraft.

In February, Sovereign Aerospace said it would assemble the Vulcanair V1.0 aircraft in Bladen County. Its presence at the Elizabethtown Aerospace Industrial Park and Curtis L. Brown Jr. Airport will add 33 manufacturing jobs.

Bladen officials had approached Sovereign at its Moore County office in December 2022. During a visit to Bladen, Hadaway says the friendly nature of local folks impressed him. “Our company decision-making relied on prayer. We diligently spent 45 to 60 days praying over this, and we closed April 7 last year.”

The jobs it creates in Bladen are a small speck in an industry that needs workers,
Hadaway says.

“Right now, the mechanic schools across North Carolina are only growing by 2%, so Sovereign Aerospace is coordinating efforts to fill that as well as people who want to branch off into airport management. Military, and civilians, who have great leadership skills can change that economic footprint for their future.

“We have several guys who were shot, or had surgery or have PTSD, and we can relate to their stories and apply things we’ve learned.”

— Kathy Blake is a writer from eastern North Carolina.

For 40 years, sharing the stories of North Carolina's dynamic business community.

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