Tuesday, March 28, 2023

How’s business? Views from around North Carolina

The Moore County Chamber of Commerce is moving soon into new offices in Southern Pines. That is rather pedestrian news. But it’s the kind of everyday business news that has been crowded out by the pandemic.

There’s no desire to minimize the problem. Monday, we hit 100,000 North Carolina COVID-19 cases. The jobless rate, at 7.6 percent, is 5+ points down from May, but twice last winter.  In all this, Phase 2 life goes on.

In September, the Moore chamber moves to the new Southern Pines Growler Company building, which opened last month.  Beer on the ground floor, business on top.

Linda Parsons, chamber president, is already planning for when this mess ends.  Part of her floor will open to folks running really small businesses who want to work around others.  ”We feel this space will help those in the community that may work from home but wish to not always have a meeting in a coffee shop, which currently is difficult to do.”

Parsons says business in the county seems to be “holding on” during the past few months. “In fact, we’ve had several small businesses open or about to open despite these crazy times.”

One business in Moore recovering slowly is the golf mecca’s hotel industry. “Our world changed in eight days last March,”  said Phil Werz, head of the convention and visitors bureau.  In April, hotel occupancy was 22.2%. By June, it was back to 43.8%, still 24 points down from 2019.

“I am optimistic we will get there,” he says, “but it is going to take a lot of hard work.”

I checked in with several folks to get the view from Asheville.  Architect Peter Alberice, director of MHAworks there, said projects are moving forward, although slower.  Clients have “a little bit of reticence,” but they are optimistic that once a vaccine is available, “that’s going to take the cloud off everything.”

Terri King, who owns an Asheville-based Coldwell Banker franchise, says her company had more closings in June than the same month last year.  Everything froze for a couple of weeks in March, but at the end of April, early May, “everything blew up.”  Technology helped.  With 3-D home tours and e-signatures, real estate agents could do business.

King is looking at around two-and-a-half months of inventory, typical of hot North Carolina markets.  “We had an inventory problem before COVID-19,” she said.  But what is also moving is land, 5, 10, 15-acre parcels. “We’re seeing a lot of interest.”

Also staying pretty busy is Kent Cranford, who owns bike shops. After a few weeks of home quarantine, everyone got the same idea.  Cranford, whose Motion Makers shops are in Asheville, Cherokee and Sylva, says his sales nearly doubled, along with a web surge. He might have had 10 online orders a month before. “Now we do 10-15 a day.”

In Alamance County, chamber president Mac Williams pointed to what he calls “some positives:” New stores by Lidl and Publix in Burlington are moving forward. Williams also said the residential real estate market is strong, and a couple of speculative industrial buildings are getting interest.

What came to mind for David Jackson, the chamber president in Boone, was the Kindly Kitchen produce box. When restaurants shuttered, farmers lost customers.  One of the Kindly Kitchen owners worked with a network of farmers, and they developed a food box for pick up. “They started out slow,” said Jackson, “about 30 boxes a week, and now do between 150-200, again ensuring local farmers get their crops out of the fields and into the hands of consumers.”

In the East, the Jacksonville area saw sales tax collections drop 13% in April, but were down only 6% in May, compared with last year.  What is going to provide an economic boost to the area is around $3 billion in military construction at Camp Lejeune and nearby installations to repair the damage two years ago from Hurricane Florence, said Laurette Leagon, chamber president.  The challenge now is to provide housing for all the construction workers over the next few years, she says.

Rocky Mount had been one of the bright spots east of I-95, with the redevelopment of Rocky Mount Mills by Capitol Broadcasting, construction of a Corning distribution center, and the CSX container hub.  ”We were in a real growth spurt” said chamber president David Farris.  Rocky Mount attracts a lot of sports teams from throughout the country for athletic events, and that was disrupted. Its location off I-95 makes it a prime family reunion location. ”Travel and tourism is pretty daggone important,” he said.

The Greenville-Pitt chamber launched a “Who’s hiring” campaign. Companies could list jobs on the chamber website. And things are happening. “Businesses have been created, economic development projects and discussions continue, existing industries have not stopped,” said Kate Teel, chamber president.

“It’s painful to see the businesses who are still unable to open, or who haven’t been able to make it through and have already closed, families who don’t know how much longer they can hold on – there’s no denying that,” she said.

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