Guilford County’s diverse economy paves way for growth
By Julie Cunnane
Guilford County is set to knock growth expectations out of the ballpark as the region leverages its strengths in advanced manufacturing, aerospace and even the arts.
With new downtown revitalizations in Greensboro and High Point, the expansion of area universities and the addition of jobs by local and incoming industry, the county’s economic growth is trending upward and looks to continue to do so, according to local officials.
Downtown Greensboro is growing and will soon have more cultural offerings to boost the already vibrant area.
The first season at the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts in spring 2020 will feature six Broadway shows, including the ever-popular “Wicked.” The venue has already sold 12,000 in initial season memberships, and public season ticket sales will be released June 1.
“Of the first six spectacular shows, four of them are in the top 10 on Broadway right now,” says Matt Brown, managing director of the Greensboro Coliseum Complex and the new Tanger Center.
In addition to the Broadway season lineup, the center will host 150 live performance events, bringing an estimated 337,000 to 400,000 people downtown. A new Hyatt Place hotel opened, and a Hampton Inn is under construction due to the increased traffic for performance events like these.
“First-run Broadway productions are appealing to people who come and make an overnight stay,” Brown says. “[Tanger] has become the economic generator for revitalizing downtown.”
Revolution Mill: Kontoor
Growth continues north of downtown at Revolution Mill, a mixed-use development complex where one of Greensboro’s longtime companies, VF Corp., signed a five-year lease for its spinoff clothing company Kontoor Brands Inc., a jeanswear company that carries Lee, Wrangler Jeans and other brands.
“This is an exciting next step in our work to establish our jeanswear organization as an independent, publicly traded company,” said VF Corp. President and CEO Steve Rendle in a press release. “Kontoor Brands — a creative variation of the word ‘contour’ — is a compelling company name that will preserve each brand’s unique identity while also providing the opportunity to evolve the company in the years ahead.”
Kontoor Brands houses merchandising, design and product development as well as innovation functions in the new office space with 125 employees.
Revolution Mill is a live-work community development with offices, event space, apartments, restaurants and an outdoor community space. Developers are working with the city to extend the greenway in front of the project so people can ride their bikes 15 minutes to downtown.
Downtown High Point
High Point’s city limits span over four counties: Guilford, Forsyth, Randolph and Davidson. High Point is in a perfect spot to pull nearby residents downtown for work and play.
A flagship growth project in downtown High Point is the multiuse BB&T Point Stadium, which seats 4,400 with a standing room capacity of 5,000. The High Point Rockers, a local independent Atlantic League baseball team, celebrated the opening of the stadium with its inaugural game May 2. The stadium, a $36.1 million investment, is also equipped to host soccer, football and lacrosse games, as well as other events such as festivals and concerts.
Additional commercial projects worth more than $80 million will follow, such as office space, restaurants, a hotel and retail shops in addition to some residential and mixed-use properties.
Located adjacent to the new stadium in the former Adams Mills hosiery complex is Plant Seven, an incubator for furniture designers, makers and entrepreneurs.
Plant Seven is an initiative of HP365, a nonprofit collaboration led by the High Point Chamber of Commerce and funded by a $1.5 million North Carolina grant and supporters in the community. The Plant Seven space boasts both a 3D printing lab and the second-largest materials library on the East Coast. It will also offer a cafe, retail shop and galleries for events or exhibitions
The initiative nods to the area’s history of furniture manufacturing in a new-age, collaborative way by supporting the sharing of ideas and skills with year-round programming, access to advanced technology and shared resources.
“We’re looking at creating an urban style of living in downtown,” High Point Mayor Jay Wagner told WFMY-TV in September. “We want to attract more jobs to our downtown. We want more life and vitality in our city.”
Attracting visitors for major events has been a running talent of the area. For example, the High Point Market has been drawing international traffic since 1909.
Known as the “world’s largest home furnishings trade show,” the High Point Market hosts more than 2,000 exhibitors who display wares in 11.5 million square feet of show space. Each show draws 75,000 attendees biannually.
High Point University
High Point University is a leader and supporter of the city’s downtown revitalization.
University President Nido Qubein spearheaded the fundraising for the BB&T Point Stadium project and was able to secure additional private funding for surrounding developments like hotels and apartments.
Under Qubein’s leadership since 2005, the university has enjoyed its own steady growth. Last year, the school welcomed its largest class, 1,500 new students, for a total student population of 5,200. Through tours and events, the university saw 100,000 visitors to the campus and greater High Point area.
Two new buildings will open on campus in 2019: The Wanek School of Undergraduate Sciences, which will house science classrooms and will include the Culp Planetarium and the Caine Conservatory, a space for botanical research and vegetation development for the campus.
Elon University School of Law and co//ab
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the first graduating class at the Elon University School of Law located in Union Square, the heart of Greensboro’s central business district.
“We opened our doors in 2006 when the community was anxious to have young people living and working downtown,” says Luke Bierman, dean of Elon Law.
Bierman credits the school’s continued success to community support. Students are required to work full time for a semester, during which they learn from experienced mentors in both the school and community. In turn, students give back to the High Point community by helping judges with research and new companies with business filings.
Much of this comes to fruition in the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Clinic, located in co//ab, a work facility in the middle of downtown High Point.
Opened in 2015, co//ab is the office space for 37 entrepreneurs and students pursuing their dreams. As a joint venture between the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce and Elon University School of Law, the 5,000-square-foot space provides a business address and other amenities to small business owners.
“Our faculty and students are really able to help businesses get started, help with planning, help folks who have big ideas realize those ideas, and it contributes to the economic vitality of the city,” Bierman says.
UNC Greensboro Nursing School expansion
Just down the street from co//ab is another example of education institutions and community joining as a catalyst for growth. Union Square at South Elm, a 7-acre development in Greensboro, is a collaborative effort among the city, local universities and other partners to create a downtown campus with some mixed-use spaces.
Within the square is the state-of-the-art UNC Greensboro nursing training facility, an 83,000-square-foot space shared among the college, N.C. A&T State University, Guilford Technical Community College and Cone Health. It houses the classrooms for UNCG’s doctor of nursing practice program as well as other nursing tracks for other schools.
“It is the highest level of education and training and experience on the clinical side,” says Robin Remsburg, a North Carolina native who returned to Greensboro after 27 years to become the dean of the UNCG School of Nursing.
Now the school is expanding again, breaking ground on a building on campus for an undergraduate Nursing and Instructional Building in April 2018.
“In the six years since I’ve been here, we’ve had [nursing] people in seven different places on campus,” Remsburg says. “It has been difficult to effectively and efficiently run a program when all parts were not together.”
In the new five-story building, nursing undergraduates and faculty will learn, train and work together in clean, modern classrooms and in 10 sophisticated simulation rooms.
“We can set up a simulation room and a mannequin that mimics almost exactly what [students] would experience in the hospital,” Remsburg says. “[Being] bigger, more modern, and [having] more space will enable us to plan for expansion of programs that meet community needs.”
The UNCG Nursing School offers four-year bachelor of science in nursing degrees, register nurse to BSN completion degrees, master’s degrees and Ph.D. level degrees, driving jobs in the community.
The health care sector in Greensboro expanded with Wake Forest Baptist Health’s acquisition of High Point Regional Health System in late 2018. Now it is the largest employer in High Point, with 3,347 employees.
Additionally, the Cone Health Center in Greensboro is adding a 196,000-square-foot Cone Health Women’s and Children’s Center, scheduled to open in the fall at Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital.
Innovative manufacturing and the N.C. A&T ERIC Building
Nearly 130 years old, North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University has long been one of the big contributors of university research in the state.
In February, the university announced three new “Centers of Excellence” for research-oriented projects: entrepreneurship and innovation, cybersecurity, and advanced manufacturing. By 2020, a new $90 million Engineering Research and Innovation Complex, or ERIC building, will expand the research capabilities of the nation’s largest historically black university. Both undergraduate and graduate students will have opportunities to work in these Centers of Excellence on various projects.
“We graduate a great number of students in STEM disciplines,” says Todd Simmons, associate vice chancellor for university relations. “We produce more African American engineers and more African Americans with agricultural science degrees than any other university in the country.”
The university has an annual enrollment of about 12,100 students. Since 2012, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded has grown by 30% annually.
“We feed the manufacturing industry with graduates coming out of our colleges of science and technology or engineering,” Simmons says.
According to projections, there will be plenty of job opportunities once these students graduate.
With a population of more than half a million people, Guilford County’s employment growth is trending higher since 2013, with more than 5,500 jobs announced by city and county officials as office and industrial projects come to fruition.
“In what we are doing around east Greensboro, there is significant investment happening from the university,” Simmons says. “Not just meeting the needs of A&T, but transforming east Greensboro. The university wants to support good development with amenities and services for the residents.”
A newcomer to the area is the grocery store chain Publix. “It’s the biggest project in Greensboro,” says Brent Christensen, president and CEO of the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce.
The 350-acre refrigerated distribution center and logistics campus, to be completed by the end of 2022, will be instrumental in delivering grocery items to Publix stores in a three-state area. The company plans to employ 1,000 people with an annual payroll of $44 million by 2025.
“As we continue to grow, we needed to find a location that allows us to serve our stores in the most efficient and effective way,” writes Publix spokesperson Kim Reynolds in an email. “Greensboro was a great fit based on its geography and its strong workforce. Additionally, the city and county welcomed us and were great to work with. We are excited to expand into such a wonderful community and look forward to being active and present partners.”
Amada America Inc., a precision sheet-metal equipment manufacturer headquartered in California, is a newcomer to High Point. Its $87 million investment in Guilford County will build a facility to develop a press brake-bending equipment line, adding more than 200 new jobs in the next five years. Press brakes are used to bend and shape sheet metal.
“Amada believes success comes from listening to the voice of our customers and locating our newest facility in this area allows us to be close to our customer base in the Southeast,” said Yukihiro Fukui, CEO at Amada, in a press release.
Another important contributor to the upward employment trend is Piedmont Triad International Airport.
With three runways and roughly 60 commercial and 40 cargo flights per day, PTI hosts about 1.7 million passengers annually, according to the January N.C. Department of Transportation Aviation Division report.
Kevin Baker, executive director of the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority, says the organization focuses on both transportation and employment.
“There is also the employment function which is, to a region that has [lost] jobs over the last two decades, replacing those positions with high-quality, high-paying jobs. The aerospace industry is a big part of that,” says Baker.
He says the airport is focused on being “the center of excellence for aerospace” by having land available for companies to relocate with access, utilities, roadway systems and up-to-date environmental processes. Two years ago, the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority created a role specifically focused on recruiting companies.
Right now, PTI is home to one of the largest providers of aircraft maintenance worldwide, Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Co. HAECO works on large aircraft for commercial operators, freight carriers, aircraft-leasing companies, private-charter operators and government agencies around the world.
HAECO Americas expanded in 2018, opening a hangar at PTI that will add 500 jobs locally to the more than 1,700 employees. The hangar, almost twice the size of the other four HAECO hangars, will hold four to eight aircraft simultaneously.
HAECO also manufacturers aerospace products. In addition to facilities at PTI, HAECO operates aircraft interior manufacturing facilities in High Point and Wallburg. Company representative David Kelly says amid the accelerating business climate in Greensboro, HAECO’s work ties to the area’s heritage.
“When we manufacture an aircraft seat or galley, we are in the business of making furniture,” Kelly says. “When the maintenance division repairs the interior of an aircraft, they are working with aircraft textiles. The shape and form of these jobs has changed, but the value to the region is still there.”
In addition, Cessna Aircraft, a division of Textron Aviation, operates its service and repair center at the airport exclusively for the Cessna business jet line.
Baker says PTI is a perfect fit for more specialized maintenance repair centers as well. These companies, called completion centers, finish the last stage of building aircrafts by installing all the seating, upholstery, cabinetry and lighting.
The FedEx Express Mid-Atlantic Hub is also expanding at PTI, adding 400 employees, 180 of which will be management or pilot positions. An additional eight flights per day will take off and land from the airport, according to its website.
Across the county in Whitsett, FedEx Ground will open a second, 269,000-square-foot distribution center. FedEx spokeswoman Allie Addoms says the company chose the site to complement its existing hub, along with easy access to major highways and a strong local workforce.
Also at the airport, personal jet manufacturer HondaJet is expanding its line to include a newer version of its original aircraft, the HondaJet. The HondaJet Elite will offer clients the performance package found in the original aircraft but can fly farther and with less noise pollution.
In 2018, the local company delivered its 100th HondaJet and received the American Institute of Aernautics and Astronautics 2018 Foundation Award for Excellence.
With so much expansion at the airport, Baker is thankful aerospace workforce education is well-developed in Guilford County. Guilford Technical Community College has a long-standing program for airplane mechanics that includes a certificate approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.
“GTCC really is the crown jewel to us because they have around 30 years [of experience] and have a well-established and well-oiled machine with respect to cranking out A&P Mechanics,” Baker says.
For now, Guilford County’s economy is flying high.