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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Economic development: Partnerships with counties help create industrial sites that bring jobs and prosperity to rural parts of the state

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Kevin Franklin is a believer in the power of partnership, and when Toyota Motor was exploring sites for a new battery manufacturing plant, collaboration was crucial to success.

As president of Randolph County’s Economic Development Corp, Franklin knew his county could offer Toyota the large slice of land it needed, but it didn’t have the population density and financial resources to build a shovel-ready megasite.

“We’re one of those communities that is relatively rural,” he said. “We’ve got lots of land mass, but our population is still small, and so to be able to bite off a project like this on our own, it really would not have been feasible.” 

Randolph County leaned into statewide and regional partnerships, collaborating with Greensboro and Guilford County for extending utilities to the site. The North Carolina Railroad Co. and Joseph M. Bryan Foundation helped with financing. Randolph County added $167.3 million in local incentives, while state incentives totaled $271 million. Also, the Golden LEAF Foundation put up $40 million.

Toyota Motor announced its North Carolina expansion in December 2021. It disclosed more growth plans for the Randolph County site last August.

The Greensboro-Randolph Megasite in Liberty is nestled up against the Guilford County line. The N.C. Railroad corridor serving Norfolk Southern, cuts across the northern border of the property. U.S. 421 and easy access to Piedmont Triad Regional Airport helped pave the way to the top of Toyota’s leaderboard and seal the deal.

In 2021, Toyota announced it had chosen the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite as its new home for battery production with an initial investment of $1.29 billion and the creation of 1,750 new jobs. Last summer, Toyota decided to make an additional investment of $2.5 billion, bringing its total investment to $3.8 billion. It now plans to create 2,500 total jobs. Production is set to begin in 2025.

North Carolina’s perennial ranking as a top state to do business is paying off, but the success means the state’s megasite inventory is filling up. Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina CEO Christopher Chung said that companies have snapped up most of the state’s eight available megasites. So the General Assembly spent $1 million to identify more megasites, while Gov. Roy Cooper wants to spend at least $100 million to prepare those properties.

In Edgecombe County, home of the Kingsboro Megasite, Norris Tolson is seeking additional sites through the Carolinas Gateway Partnership. This coalition of economic development partners in Edgecombe County, Tarboro and Rocky Mount works to bring jobs to Eastern North Carolina.

Tolson, president and CEO, says the partnership also works with the economic development efforts in up to 18 counties, including collaborating with the region’s community colleges.

“About three years ago we created RAMP East – Regional Advanced Manufacturing Pipeline in Eastern North Carolina,” he says. “We brought together a coalition of eight community colleges to work on a common curriculum we could offer across the board to help the 10 counties they serve be workforce ready.”

The partnership has also created laborshed potentials. Tolson points to Pfizer in Rocky Mount as a good example when he pitches the benefits of eastern North Carolina to industries looking for a home.

“Pfizer recruits employees from 22 surrounding counties,” Tolson says. “We currently are recruiting a large client that needs several thousand employees, and our work with Pfizer shows them how they can tap into the workforce not just from Edgecombe or Nash counties, but from other counties across our region.”

He added that partnering with other counties is the only way the region will be able to fully develop buildable sites. 

“Rural counties like Edgecombe are among the poorest in the state, and they don’t have the financial means to build out sites, so it’s either partner or you don’t survive,” he says.

For places like Randolph County, that sentiment has a familiar ring to it. 

“If we were not close to an urban center, I’m not sure Toyota would have been looking at our community,” Franklin says. “This was a hand-in-glove effort with a lot of collaboration with partners.”

It wasn’t so long ago that counties engaged in heated competition for lucrative projects to land inside their borders. And Franklin says taking a cooperative approach has not quenched their thirst for getting the upper hand in recruiting.

“Don’t assume that because we’re collaborating with each other we’re not still competitive,” he says. “But we have great relationships with our county partners and if a facility I want in my community turns us down, then I’d really like to work with other counties if that means having it close by because it benefits the workforce across our entire region.”

— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer from Raleigh.

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