Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Community close up: Union County, moving forward

Transportation improvements, including the Monroe Expressway, are changing agrarian Union County. They’re making business easier, spurring academic opportunities and creating an inviting quality of life.

The numbers don’t lie: Agriculture is important to Union County. The 2017 Census of Agriculture — the most recent offered by U.S. Department of Agriculture — listed 957 farms, cultivating about 46.2% of its 631.5 square miles. They produce almost $482 million in goods, including the second-most grain crops and third-most poultry and eggs in the state.

Some Union County companies, including Marshville’s Edwards Wood Products and Carolina Wood Products, work in its “timber basket,” producing pallets, furniture-grade hardwoods and other items.

“Diversity is the key to any business sector’s success,” Monroe-Union County Economic Development Executive Director Chris Platé says.

“Union County’s agribusiness segment is extremely varied and robust. [It] is a leading producer of row crops, livestock, equine, food processing and timber in the state. Crops and the poultry industry accounted for $411 million in economic activity in 2019. With Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride as the county’s largest agriculture employers [with 2,500 workers combined], 50 million chickens were processed in Union County and put out to market the same year.”

It has been a good year for Union County, which has landed six projects that brought $151 million in capital investment and created 410 jobs as of late September. “Precision manufacturing and agribusiness are where the real competitive advantages lie in Union County,” Platé says. “Within the precision manufacturing area, aerospace is the largest and most significant cluster. Monroe-Union County Economic Development is working hard, trying to see if they can duplicate the success of the aerospace initiative with its agribusiness initiative. It’s a complete community effort to seek and develop an agribusiness value chain that would incorporate producers, processing facilities, markets, restaurants and to consumers.”

But more is growing in Union County. Platé says logistics and commercial development play important economic roles, too. So does precision manufacturing, especially in the aerospace industry, whose local investments have exceeded $1 billion since 2002, he says. A big driver of Union’s economic diversification is transportation. And it’s bringing academic opportunities and people with it.

The $731 million Monroe Expressway opened in 2018 after more than 20 years of planning and development, thanks in part to financial roadblocks. But it has been impacting Union County’s economy ever since. Its 18 miles bisects the county, from Stallings in the west to Marshville in the east, and allows drivers to bypass 27 stop-and-go intersections on the parallel stretch of U.S. 74.

Drivers, who enter or exit at eight points and have their distances electronically recorded, pay to travel the expressway. Use a Quick Pass transponder and two-axle vehicle, and a one-exit trip can cost as little as 27 cents. The entire stretch is $2.66; without one, the registered car owner is billed $4.10 by mail. Rates are higher for vehicles with more axles.

Plenty of drivers have been happy to pay for the expressway’s convenience. The county estimated some interchanges handled 20,000 vehicles — mostly commercial trucks and commuters — every weekday in 2020. Usage gets a bump in summer when vacationers head to the coast.

But the expressway offers more than a time savings. “Abundant farmland, a skilled workforce and a rapidly improving road system for distribution means food processed from Union County farms can reach their customers quickly,” Platé says. It’s helping bring people, too.

Union County’s population was more than 239,000 in 2020, up from about 202,000 a decade earlier, according to the N.C. Office of State Budget and Management. “The residential segment is booming,” says Ron Mahle, Monroe-Union County Economic Development’s assistant director for economic development and existing industry. “We’ve had at least 3,000 new housing units, and these are mainly people employed in many of the industrial centers in the county. There are young couples and young families buying these homes, and they’re in the market range of the type of high-quality jobs that we’re bringing and expanding here in Union County. Union County is really attractive to folks in all life phases. It’s a great place to raise a child. And we have over 185 manufacturing companies employing about 15,000 people at a very competitive wage rate. We’ve added about 3,000 people to the civilian labor force in the last 12 months.”

Wingate University, a private institution founded in 1896, has about 3,600 students, 35 undergraduate majors, 38 minors and 10 preprofessional programs. It recently purchased 100 acres near the expressway, where it will develop Town and Gown in partnership with the town of Wingate and other investors. “What energizes me about the town of Wingate development project is the transformative impact it will have on the town’s retail, commercial and entertainment environment, therefore complementing our efforts to advance a thriving university,” university president Rhett Brown says.

Platé says Town and Gown will create a distinct impression: “A linear park is part of a multimodal corridor that connects the Main Street Village — a retail component of the plan with approximately 225,000 square feet of restaurants, brew pubs and specialty shops — to the university, downtown Wingate and the corporate areas.” It’ll end at The Knoll, a community gathering spot where a historic oak tree grows.

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The park will connect the development to a future office and research park, “hopefully taking advantage of the close proximity of a university, the available workforce and other resources nearby that would provide a competitive advantage for the recruitment of these firms,” Platé says. The plan could bring 500,000 square feet of corporate office and research space and at least one hotel, he says.

Platé says Town and Gown is one of the most exciting projects that his office has been involved in during his 23-year tenure. “It is a truly transformational endeavor for eastern Union County, adding the potential for nearly $225 million of economic development investment and the creation of over 1,000 new career opportunities for the Wingate area,” he says. South Piedmont Community College has campuses in Anson and Union counties and more than 6,000 students in career-focused programs. Its Tyson Family Center for Technology, for example, offers courses in machining, welding and

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mechanical engineering. Graduates work for a variety of companies, including plastic packaging manufacturer Berry Global, which has a factory in Monroe. The Center’s enrollment has increased 96% during the past five years. The college also partners with health care providers such as Novant and Atrium. SPCC says 67% of jobs will require high-quality credentials or post-secondary degrees by 2030, but only 49% of workers age 25 to 49 have completed such education.

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SPCC graduates work at more than 300 companies, including ones in aerospace, advanced manufacturing and heavy equipment. “Central to our mission is workforce development,” SPCC President Maria Pharr says. “We pride ourselves on creating education and training programs with our business and industry partners that meet their specific workforce needs.”

Glenmark Pharmaceuticals, Greiner Bio-One, Iron Peddlers and Instrument Transformer Equipment are some of the local companies that have partnered with SPCC to create apprenticeships or customized training. They use employer-inspired hands-on studies to train workers, meeting staffing needs during tight labor markets. “We see SPCC as the main talent supply channel for our businesses,” says Karla Shields, who joined SPCC as its associate vice president of economic and workforce development and dean of its School of Applied Science and Technology in August.

Monroe Corporate Center was its namesake city’s first industrial park. Only about 100 acres remain of the 500 it started with more than 25 years ago. Its second park, 80-acre AeroPointe Industrial Centre, was created for its aerospace cluster. ATI, a world-leader in super-alloy development and production, took it all. “Since the city began developing its own industrial parks, it has attracted $850 million in investment from companies that have created over 2,500 jobs,” Platé says. “[They] develop products to serve a wide variety of business sectors, including aerospace, medical device, pharmaceutical, life safety, commercial automotive and construction materials.”

Monroe purchased 155 acres, creating Expressway Commerce Park at Monroe in 2018. It sold 82 acres to Windsor Windows & Doors in September. It plans to build a 570,000-square-foot factory, a more than $80 million capital investment. Union County recently purchased 330 acres for its first industrial park, Piedmont Innovation Park. Platé says it already has landed a $140 million aerospace investment from ATI. He says the county is exploring a park to support local agribusinesses. He says the county has 10 agribusiness projects, whose investments total about $65 million.

A vital link in North Carolina’s 72-airport system, Charlotte-Monroe Executive Airport welcomes a variety of aircraft, from puddle-jumpers to a $10 million corporate jet. Its hangar space is in demand from an increasing number of private-plane owners, many residing in Weddington, Waxhaw and Marvin. “People consider moving to that area, and they come to me and say, ‘Hey, I have a plane, and I’d love to base it here,’” airport Manager Peter Cevallos says. “A lot of business executives live in that area and know we’re 10 minutes from their house. It’s accessible and convenient. The way it has evolved is Charlotte is growing to the south and to the east. People are moving out that way, and they have the money to travel and own airplanes.”

Cevallos says his airport’s runways aren’t built for commercial airlines’ 100,000-pound planes. “We’re a non-commercial airport,” he says. “That means airlines like Delta can’t land here. That’s what makes us different from [Charlotte Douglas International Airport]. That does not take away from us. We just don’t have commercial service.”

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The future of air commuting could be as easy as hailing a rideshare. “Yes, we’re a corporate airport, but people are talking about creating an Uber for air travel,” Cevallos says. “You can hire someone to fly you anywhere. You can call and say, ‘Hey, we need a ride to Amelia Island [in Florida] for our vacation,’ and there will be two or three companies who offer you a price. Or we have business travelers who want to go to a small city and be back the same day.”

The airport updates its forward-looking plan with Monroe and the Federal Aviation Administration every 20 years. Its Master Plan Draft Map for 2022-2042 outlines intentions in five-year increments. Additional hangars are a top priority. “The plan does not address the public areas, the road system for the airport, the runway or taxi way,” Cevallos says. “There are plans for that, but they aren’t as impactful as the hangars.”

Cevallos compares his hangar plan to a neighborhood. “The top left [of the map] is the big hangars, like your million-dollar homes,” he says. “On the other side are the smaller squares, with smaller hangars. There also are storage facilities, like the ones you see around town. We also have outdoor slips, like a ramp with tie-down spaces, the equivalent of docking your boat. We also have box hangars, the equivalent of dry dock. I have 110 in there. Our staff goes in and pulls the airplane out.”

The Master Plan includes a wish-list for amenities outside the airport’s boundaries. “The overall balanced objective on that map is more than 120 hangar structures and a half-million square feet of hangar space in the next 20 years,” Cevallos says. “Business has been good for us. We’re still growing. We’re on an upward trajectory.” ■

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