Moore County marches forward, bolstered by tourists and the military
Appeared as a sponsored section in the January 2018 issue of Business North Carolina.
Golf courses, including the one at Mid South Club, plus fine dining, first-class lodging, recreation and shopping have made Moore County an international travel destination. Visitors spent $468.9 million there in 2016. Photo provided by Pinehurst/Southern Pines/Aberdeen CVB
By Suzanne Wood
Golfers know all about Moore County. Its nearly 40 courses, including world famous Pinehurst No. 2, considered by many to be legendary designer Donald Ross’ masterpiece, have earned this corner of the Sandhills the title “Home of American golf.” Add in nearby outdoor recreation, fine dining, craft brewing and shopping, and it’s easy to see why visitors spent $468.9 million here in 2016. Moore ranks 11th in visitor spending among the state’s 100 counties, says Caleb Miles, president and CEO of Pinehurst-based Convention & Visitors Bureau Pinehurst, Southern Pines, Aberdeen Area of North Carolina.
Tourism is a pillar of Moore’s economy. The industry employed more than 5,100 residents in 2016, according to Raleigh-based N.C. Department of Commerce’s Labor and Economic Analysis Division. Only its health care industry employed more — nearly 8,900 — that year. But as much fun as it is to play here, there is work to be done, too.
Moore County is home to manufacturers, family neighborhoods, good schools and high-quality health care. Local leaders want to give them a bigger role in defining the county while diversifying its tax base and encouraging prosperity, which is concentrated around the tourism hubs of Pinehurst, Southern Pines and Aberdeen. It’s a different story in the northern portions of the county, where pockets of poverty intermingle with small towns.
Charles Hayes, managing partner of Sanford-based Hayes Group Consulting LLC and former Moore County economic developer, took note of that dichotomy and other challenges. “There is a lack of consensus in direction. Northern Moore [County] needs more defined possibilities, and southern Moore is facing challenges with growth, with how to sustain its character and the influx of the military. These are some of the major issues and challenges for planning.”
In order to meet those challenges, Pinehurst-based economic-development agency Moore County Partners in Progress commissioned Hayes to spearhead Moore’s first strategic economic-development plan. Its recommendations were crafted from a survey of 1,000 residents, 80 personal interviews and dozens of focus groups. They were released in December and called for expanding the health care sector, leveraging Fort Bragg’s proximity and rejuvenating manufacturing.
Pat Corso, Partners in Progress’ executive director, says the strategic plan’s aim is to ensure all communities have access to economic opportunities and the jobs they provide. He says that will be done by revitalizing and developing assets for tourism and industry.
Pinehurst-based FirstHealth of the Carolinas Inc., which operates a 402-bed hospital in its hometown, was Moore County’s largest employer as of the second quarter of 2017. It and the rest of the county’s health care industry employed about 26% of the workforce in 2016, according to Commerce’s LEAD. Corso says that the industry’s size and successes can be leveraged to attract medical device, supply, service and equipment companies to the county.
Fort Bragg, the Army’s most populous base, stretches into Moore County. It attracts defense contractors to the Sandhills and supplies a growing stream of soldiers turned entrepreneurs. Corso says a “tsunami of Special Forces folks” are choosing to live in Moore County. That makes the prospect for developing more companies, especially with servicemen and women after they transition out of the service, promising. Generating synergies between them and the civilian sector, along with business incubators geared toward entrepreneurs, are ways this part of the plan can be put into action, he says.
Moore County hasn’t been spared from the manufacturing downturn that many communities across North Carolina have experienced. Corso says about one-third of Moore’s workforce was employed in manufacturing 30 years ago. That number was 5% in 2016, according to Commerce’s LEAD. He says creating industrial parks, beefing up incentives and collaborating with Raleigh-based N.C. Community College System for workforce development will make the county more attractive to manufacturers, and their arrival will boost the industry’s employment numbers.
Some manufacturers are already setting up shop in Moore County. Calgary, Alberta, Canada-based Minhas Furniture House Ltd. recently chose to renovate the shuttered 125,000-square-foot Klaussner Furniture plant in Robbins. It will house Minhas’ Flair Enterprises upholstery factory, which is moving from Asheboro. It’s expected to open early this year, creating 129 jobs over the next five years. The town and county collaborated to make the deal happen, says Corso, who credits Robbins Town Manager David Lambert with much of the success.
Southern Pines-based R. Riveter LLC founders Cameron Cruse and Lisa Bailey moved their company to Moore County in 2014, when their husbands were transferred to Fort Bragg. It’s named after Rosie the Riveter, the iconic homefront symbol from World War II, and a team of work-from-home military spouses sew its high-end handbags from military surplus canvas and leather. That concept, along with the bags’ growing popularity, put the founders on “Shark Tank,” a reality TV show that gives entrepreneurs the chance to pitch their businesses to high-profile investors. The duo left with $100,000 from billionaire Mark Cuban, who took a 20% equity stake in the company in exchange.
Heath Trigg continues to find inspiration for his business, Southern Pines-based Heritage Flag LLC, in the local military community. About four years ago, he owned a custom cabinet company and was finishing work on the taproom for Southern Pines Brewing Co., a craft brewery that three Special Forces veterans from Fort Bragg — Micah Niebauer, John Brumer and Jason Ginos — were opening. He wanted to present them with a special thank-you gift for hiring him.
The idea for that gift came to Trigg in a dream, which woke him in the middle of the night. He quickly made a rough sketch of a U.S. flag made from slats of used whiskey barrels. That plaque, which measures about 2 feet high and 4 feet wide and still hangs in the brewery’s taproom, launched The Heritage Flag Co. Trigg and his craftsmen have since created flags for other veterans. He started selling them online after people spotted them and inquired about purchasing one.
Growing the next Heritage Flag Co. or R. Riveter is one idea behind the new economic-development plan. Partners in Progress’ board is expected to officially adopt the plan early this year. Then, task forces will be assigned to work on implementation details. Corso says the final action plan is expected to be rolled out in 2020.
Funding to make the plan reality will have to come from within Moore County. The wealth of the southern part of the county makes Moore a Tier 3 county under the state’s annual county economic health assessment. It assigns the 40 most stressed to Tier 1, the 40 strongest to Tier 3 and the remainder to Tier 2. Those grouped with Moore are less likely to receive help from state economic-development programs or groups such as Rocky Mount-based Golden LEAF Foundation, which invests a portion of the state’s national tobacco settlement money in economic-development projects. “We don’t have [access] to Golden LEAF,” Corso says. “We have to be our own Golden LEAF.”
Corso says creating the strategic plan was the hard part. Its implementation will be easier because it will involve building on what works in the county rather than starting from scratch. “We don’t want to lose what brought us here. We want to build on and expand upon it.”
Moore attracts soldiers turned entrepreneurs
Moore County’s recently unveiled strategic economic-development plan calls for leveraging local resources. One of its largest is Fort Bragg, whose more than 52,000 active-duty soldiers make it the Army’s most populous base. Some will be among the 78,000 or so military personnel that N.C. Department of Commerce and N.C. Military Affairs Commission expect to transition out of the service at one of the state’s seven military bases by 2019. Many will stay and work in the state, where employers will hire them for the lessons and skills they learned in the military. Others will embark on a different mission.
Many businesses started by former servicemen and women have found footing in the Sandhills. They chose this corner of North Carolina for many reasons, including the familiarity fostered by their time at Fort Bragg or the praises sung by fellow military personnel. Some of the companies are defense contractors, and others meet needs in the civilian market.
French statesman and military leader Napoleon Bonaparte is credited with saying that an army marches on its stomach. While that may be true, Pinehurst-based Spiritus Systems Co. founders Zane Vogel and Adam Holroyd believe the gear it selects means as much to the successful completion of its objectives. In 2014, when the two lifelong friends returned from Afghanistan, where Vogel served with Fort Bragg-based 82nd Airborne Division and Army veteran Holroyd was a security contractor, they started designing and building the type of gear that they wished they had had in the field. They produced vests, pouches and bags that service personnel use to carry and store necessities such as medical supplies, ammunition, water and armor plating. Although the military issues gear to its personnel, they knew that soldiers would pay for higher quality versions.
Vogel and Holroyd maintain strong connections to the military community, which keeps them in step with what active-duty soldiers want and need to do their jobs effectively and safely. Their company’s best-seller is a lightweight compact chest rig. Comprised of suspender-like straps and a belt, a variety of modular units, each designed to hold specific items, can be attached. “Like with Legos, you can assemble it to fit your needs,” Vogel says.
Working from Holroyd’s home, the entrepreneurs sewed and searched for customers. They built a website and social media following, choosing to sell direct instead of fighting for shelf space at retail stores. Their customer base, which includes law-enforcement personnel, grew so quickly that they had to hire production help. Vogel won’t reveal the size of Spiritus’ workforce, but he expects it to double over the next year or so.
Filling those jobs wasn’t difficult. “We are fortunate to take advantage of the sewing base that is here,” Vogel says. “There are still lots of very talented, skilled sewers.” While the state’s textile industry employment has shrunk since its historic high of 233,000 North Carolinians in 1996, enough workers remain to anchor this company. “It was a no-brainer to locate in North Carolina.”
Like Spiritus Systems, Spartan Blades LLC is the result of two former military buddies recognizing a business opportunity. Its story starts with co-founder Curtis Iovito, a former Army Ranger who crafted knives for his military friends. In 2008, when he and eventual company co-founder Mark Carey decided to leave the ballistic armor company where they worked, Iovito remembered those knives and approached Carey about building a business around them. They used their savings as seed money.
A decade later, Spartan Blades’ fixed and folding knives are sold at 150 stores nationwide. While their designs are rooted in survival, military training and combat tasks, most are purchased by hunters and outdoor enthusiasts.
Spartan’s founders based their business in Southern Pines to take advantage of ties to nearby Fort Bragg and the pro-business attitude and strong work ethic they saw in Moore County residents. That decision received some flak from fellow knife manufacturers, most of which are based in Oregon. “We were told you couldn’t make knives in North Carolina,” Iovito says. “That the state didn’t have the industrial processes needed to support knife manufacturing.”
Iovito and Carey proved their critics wrong. They found companies in High Point and Greensboro to handle manufacturing processes, such as heat treating the metal, that they couldn’t. They have hired four employees and two contractors. Spartan makes its knives a few hundred at a time, compared to the thousand-plus batches their larger competitors produce.
Iovito says the discipline, perseverance and procedure that the military instilled during his service has served him well in the business world. He’s not surprised that so many former military men and women are starting companies, especially in the Sandhills, where they can offer each other support.