Saturday, June 15, 2024

Peers pick the state’s top economic developers

The North Carolina Economic Development Association honors top achievers at its annual convention, including last month’s gathering in Wilmington. The award winners worked on the state’s most high-profile successes in attracting corporate entrants.

By Jennings Cool Roddey and David Mildenberg


David Spratley has received little notice for his key role in attracting companies to North Carolina for nearly two decades. The veteran state employee “loathes the spotlight,” says Dan Gerlach, a Raleigh consultant who led the Golden LEAF Foundation for a decade.  

But the N.C. Economic Development Association is bringing Spratley out of the shadows, honoring him with its Award for Executive Achievement. The award came as Spratley left his state job to join the Nexsen Pruet law firm in mid-June.

“There is not one other individual active in his career that has had his hands on the success of so many economic development projects in North Carolina,” says Melissa Smith, vice president of business recruitment and development for the  Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina.

The Ohio native came south to attend UNC Wilmington. He joined the N.C. Commerce Department in 1996 and spent much of his career there, except for a two-and-a-half year stint at accounting giant KPMG from 2001-04. In 2014, he joined the new, public-private EDPNC as vice president for business recruitment. Five years later, he returned to Commerce as senior assistant secretary of finance.

He was a major designer of state incentives to persuade companies to select North Carolina, particularly the Job Development Incentive Grant program. JDIG, as it’s called, offers reimbursements of personal income tax withholding for companies that meet commitments for new jobs and investment.

Lawmakers increased the program’s scope in recent years to help North Carolina win some major projects after decades of losing some high-profile deals to other states. 

“There’s no debate: Projects would have been lost, consultant relationships marred, and our incentives arsenal weakened without [Spratley’s] essential influence as the rational arbiter between Commerce and EDPNC,” says Ryan Nance, director of economic development at North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives. “While his name and face never appear in the announcement credits or ribbon-cuttings, his fingerprints are pervasive in service to our state’s counties and communities.”

What is the most important step North Carolina can make to become more attractive for economic development?

Long-term response: Education. Adequately fund and fully support education at all levels.  

Short-term response: North Carolina, like most of our competitor states, has very little product (quality industrial buildings and sites) to market to companies.  No matter how much a company may want to locate or expand, they can’t do so without a building or site that meets their operational needs.


After a lengthy career in finance that included leadership of First Union National Bank’s Triangle market, Fain was named commerce secretary by Gov. Mike Easley in 2001. He spent the next eight years in the post, leading the department during a period of significant gains and turmoil as traditional industries of furniture, textiles and tobacco faded and high-tech, health care and financial-services companies expanded. 

Site Selection magazine cited North Carolina for having the nation’s best business climate five times between 2001-06 as companies such as Quintiles, Credit Suisse, Fidelity Investments and Volvo Construction added jobs. During Fain’s tenure in state government, the state expanded the types of companies eligible for tax credits when adding new jobs and reorganized the amount of credits available for the least-prosperous counties.

Fain is a Hendersonville native whose grandfather was a co-owner of that city’s newspaper. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science and an MBA from UNC Chapel Hill. His first job was at Home Bank and Trust in Hendersonville.

He cites the Global TransPark in Kinston as the most noteworthy project of his Commerce career. “It took foresight by a number of people and it was more promise than reality for a long time. But the recruitment of Spirit Aerosystems gave it life and a lot of ancillary businesses have grown up around that.

“Economic development is hard work and the key is to put infrastructure in place to make it attractive to employers,” he says. “Infrastructure includes good schools and other community services, not just buildings.”

After leaving the department, Fain set up a public policy and economic development consulting business in Raleigh. While still involved in some civic groups, Fains says “vocationally I’m a loafer. I mostly get up in the morning glad I live in North Carolina.”


Fast-growing Holly Springs made headlines in 2021 by attracting two giant biotech companies promising to add a combined 1,000 jobs over the next few years. At the center of those deals is Krstanovic, who has been working on attracting businesses to the Wake County city for more than 20 years, including the last six as economic development director.

In March 2021, Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, a pharmaceutical manufacturer, announced plans to invest $2 billion and build one of the industry’s largest North American plants. It is expected to open in 2025 and eventually employ 725 people. 

Then in August 2021, biotech leader Amgen said it would build a manufacturing plant in Holly Springs. It broke ground in March at the site, where 355 jobs with an average salary of $120,000 are expected to be added.

“The state has been doing everything right when it comes to making North Carolina more attractive to businesses looking for a place to call home,” Krstanovic says. “They had the foresight to create the North Carolina Biotechnology Center years ago to move our focus towards clean manufacturing and high-paying jobs, which has clearly paid off. They’ve also been supporting municipalities with key incentives so local economic development teams can be competitive in the marketplace.” 


The Cary native, who moved to his Wake County post in May, is honored for his work over the past four years as a senior project manager for Chatham County Economic Development. Rauf started with handling business retention and later took over attraction and business recruitment work.

Rauf was one of the many players in recruiting VinFast, the Vietnamese-owned company that plans an auto assembly plant in Chatham County that expects to employ 7,500. VinFast says the plant near Moncure will begin assembly of electric vehicles in 2024. Rauf is a graduate of Roanoke College. He was part of Business North Carolina’s Trailblazers feature in 2021, which recognizes key business leaders under the age of 40 who work in smaller cities. 

What is the most important step North Carolina can make to become more attractive for economic development?

“The best thing North Carolina can do right now to strengthen its economic development efforts is to heavily invest in site identification and development,” Rauf says. “As the recent economic development success in North Carolina points to, we have an incredible mix of talent, quality of life, and business climate that makes our state one of the best places for businesses and professionals in the country. Our track record proves that.”


Improving broadband access has been a major initiative for Fayetteville and Cumberland County, leading to the award for innovation provided to the region’s economic development group and CEO Robert Van Geons. Efforts have included working with North Carolina lawmakers to establish the Core Innovation Center space in downtown Fayetteville to promote tech-minded entrepreneurs and small businesses and attracting broadband providers Segra and Metronet for extensive infrastructure projects.

Since taking his Fayetteville post in 2017, Van Geons has emphasized the importance of a competitive data infrastructure needed to compete in an increasingly digital-dominated world. In March, Indiana-based Metronet launched its fiber network in Fayetteville as part of a $75 million investment plan for the region. Its fiber will provide service to much of Cumberland and parts of Hoke County, helping the region catch up with other N.C. areas in terms of access to high-speed internet.

Van Geons is a graduate of Catawba College with a master’s degree in economic development from the University of Southern Mississippi. He previously recruited industry in Rowan and Stanly counties.

What is the most important step North Carolina can make to become more attractive for economic development?

“With our economy growing at a red-hot pace, now is the time to reinvest a portion of these gains into education, workforce development, and re-entry programs.  From an economic development perspective, reducing barriers to employment will increase our labor force from which employers can recruit while also providing a better future for the next generation of North Carolinians.”

Raybow Pharmaceuticals, Transylvania County

In March, Raybow USA announced plans to triple capacity at its Brevard pharmaceuticals plant. The Chinese-owned company will invest $15.8 million, and the expansion is expected to create 74 jobs.

As executive director of the Transylvania Economic Alliance, Hallingse was part of the team that helped facilitate Raybow’s expansion. Last November, after more than six years in Brevard, Hallingse moved to the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce to oversee small business development and business retention. He’s a graduate of UNC Charlotte with a master’s degree from Appalachian State University. 

Toyota Motor, Randolph Guilford Megasite

News that Japanese automaker Toyota Motor would develop a factory for building electric vehicle batteries got international coverage in December 2021. But the megasite project started a decade ago as the land began to be assembled. Leaders of the effort included Franklin and Christensen. 

The plant, which is expected to begin operating in 2025, is set for the 1,800-acre Greensboro-Randolph Megasite on the edge of Randolph and Guilford counties. Toyota projects a $1.29 billion investment that will lead to 1,750 jobs initially, with expectations of a much larger operation down the road.

Franklin, a former town manager, has worked for Randolph’s economic development group since 2013, including three years as president. Christensen became Greensboro’s chamber president in 2015 after holding similar posts in Mississippi and Gainesville, Florida.

Apple Expansion, Wake County

Attracting a 3,000-employee Apple campus to Research Triangle Park is the type of deal that many economic developers dream about. But Ashley Cagle lived the experience, serving as primary project manager throughout the recruitment of the tech giant. In April 2021, Apple announced its plans to invest $1 billion at the new Wake site and its Catawba County data center, while also pledging $100 million for a fund to support schools and community initiatives. The RTP jobs are expected to pay an average annual salary of $187,000.

Cagle is a UNC Charlotte graduate who joined the Wake County nonprofit in 2014. She previously led economic development in Montgomery County. She is president of the Triangle chapter of the Commercial Real Estate Women network.

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at

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