Sunday, July 14, 2024

Pitt County makes growth a group effort

Economic development is a team sport in Pitt County. Jack Pender, who is part of the East Carolina University chemistry department, created a training course for workers at nearby Mayne Pharma Group Ltd. at the request of Pitt Community College’s customized training program.


Appeared as a sponsored section in the November 2017 issue of Business North Carolina.

By Kathy Blake

Jack Pender’s two-day, hands-on laboratory class wasn’t for students in Greenville-based East Carolina University’s chemistry department, where he’s director of pharmaceutical training and laboratory services. Instead, he designed the on-campus instruction for employees of Australia-based drugmaker Mayne Pharma Group Ltd., which has a commercial office in Raleigh and factory in Greenville.

The class covered several topics, including high-performance liquid chromatography. Mayne uses the technique, which identifies and quantifies a substance’s ingredients, at its development and analytical testing center in Greenville. “The class was requested by Mayne and administered through the customized training program at Pitt Community College,” Pender says. “ECU has offered or coordinated several short courses on relevant topics for working pharmaceutical professionals to better understand the ‘why’ behind the work they do daily.”

ECU and Winterville-based Pitt Community College’s training efforts are one collaboration that is boosting Pitt County. Industry, higher education, local government and the private sector are connecting on others. They are improving the economy by developing economic, transportation, housing and health care assets. While most of those are happening in Pitt’s county seat — Greenville — their effects are felt countywide.

[/media-credit] East Carolina University’s GlasStation hosts glass blowing demonstrations and exhibits. It’s part of Farmville’s future, which is planted in the visual arts.

Todd Edwards lives in Farmville, about 10 miles west of Greenville. He owns a local construction company and is one of four volunteers behind The Farmville Group, which helps with economic development. He says Pitt County’s amenities and diversity create a culture in a place that is worth visiting and exploring. “The Coastal Plain of South Carolina is not that different from North Carolina. They branded themselves as the Lowcountry, and we’ve been drive-through flatland to get to the beach. But we have our barbecue and arts and our own little twist of eastern [North Carolina] culture, and together we’re creating an identity. Folks are working hard, finding reasons to shine, and it’s working. It’s changing rapidly, for the good. The cranes are the most visible part, but it extends beyond downtown Greenville. You’re seeing a renaissance.”

Cary-based Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina Inc. says the state is home to more than 600 pharmaceutical and life-sciences companies, 31% more than in 2001. Pitt County, whose economy was once almost entirely agrarian, has welcomed this industry. Mayne joins several pharmaceutical companies, including Waltham, Mass.-based Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. In August it acquired Netherlands-based drug-ingredients provider Patheon NV and its Greenville factory in a $7.2 billion deal.

“ECU’s Pharmaceutical Development Center has already quadrupled its throughput of specialized pharmaceutical chemistry training to increase the number of personnel qualified to hire at multiple pharmaceutical companies in the region,” says Allison Danell, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in ECU’s chemistry department. “Undergraduate and graduate students are engaging in financially supported research projects in the Pharmaceutical Development Center laboratories to advance research at ECU and with industry partners. We believe these students’ engagement is being translated directly to their decisions to enter STEM-focused careers in the near future.”

ECU’s Good Manufacturing Practices for Analytical Chemists class prepares seniors and graduate students for careers in the pharmaceutical industry. “Graduates of the GMP class are highly prized by the region’s pharmaceutical companies and often have employment offers before graduation,” Pender says. “We have helped place graduates from Wilson to Wilmington. Even better, volunteers from these companies assist several weeks with coaching students on proper technique and pharmaceutical-specific documentation concepts. It is a win-win. The students get plenty of help from current practitioners. The companies get to identify strong students with an interest in pharmaceutical laboratory work and desire to work and live locally.”

ECU’s training coexists with PCC’s laboratory-based classrooms, where solid-dose manufacturing, among other things, are taught. In March, the schools received a $1.75 million grant from Rocky Mount-based Golden LEAF Foundation, which invests a portion of the state’s national tobacco settlement in economic-development projects. The money will fund more partnerships in pharmaceutical manufacturing and training such as Pender’s course.

Thomas Gould, PCC’s vice president of academic affairs, says the two schools complement each other. “We share our resources. We share our expertise, and we realize that what Pitt is doing and what ECU is doing is leading to the same end, which is to create a talented workforce attractive to business and industry. So what you’re looking at is Pitt and ECU really are training the entire spectrum. Our goal is to create a workforce pipeline so these companies not only will expand but attract other pharmaceutical companies to move to Pitt County.”

PCC dedicated its Walter and Marie Williams Building in August. The 78,000-square-foot building’s six general biology labs, microbiology lab and other labs and classrooms support its STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — programs. A $19.9 million bond approved by voters in 2013 provided funding.

ECU has undergone a rebranding since Cecil Staton was named its chancellor in July 2016. The university is focused on national and global recognition of its students’ success, public service and transformation of rural regions. With the slogan “Capture your horizon,” it offers students the choice of 85 bachelor’s degrees, 72 master’s degrees and 19 doctoral degrees. “The change allows us to broaden our reach,” says Tom Eppes, the university’s chief communications officer. “ECU has grown to almost 30,000 students from across North Carolina and from across the United States. What was once a university focused only on eastern North Carolina continues to serve the region but now serves a much larger geography and is involved in research that has national or global implications, not just regional solutions.”

ECU’s Brody School of Medicine was named the most affordable of 110 U.S. medical schools in July by Austin, Texas-based Student Loan Hero Inc., which helps students manage their debt. “Brody has gained national attention for research in cancer, diabetes and other diseases and for producing doctors who stay in North Carolina to practice primary care,” Eppes says.

[/media-credit] Vidant Health expects to open its cancer center and 96-bed tower next year.

Greenville-based Vidant Health and ECU took a big step toward changing how the region’s health care is managed. The two agreed in July to combine their 80 medical practices into one company, currently called VECU. It’s expected to be up and running next year. “The integration of the two physician groups is a critical step in bringing more comprehensive medical care that is accessible, innovative, research-driven, industry leading and above all, drives improved outcomes and results for patients,” says Vidant Health spokesman Chad Campbell. “Patients will gain access to a network of 800 physicians and specialists, as well as clinical trials and medical research. This agreement also enhances our ability to attract and retain high-performing physicians and specialists, bringing more expertise, access to clinical trials and the newest therapies, all in order to provide the best care and patient experience in the rural communities we serve.”

Other changes are stirring in Greenville. Down the street from ECU and Vidant, cranes and heavy-duty trucks are busy in a 10-by-16 block portion of downtown, where private and public investments are pushing construction at a frenzied pace. There is about $1 billion earmarked for development across the city. ECU recently issued a news release that made students, staff and faculty aware of “approximately 100 projects ongoing across the main campus, some of which will impact vehicle and pedestrian traffic and access to buildings and parking lots.”

Greenville-based Taft Development Group broke ground on The Proximity at 10th St. in August. The 609-bed student housing complex is being built on 4 acres adjacent to ECU’s main campus. Tenants will choose from fully furnished studio, one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom units and enjoy 12,000 square feet of retail shops, a parking garage, clubhouse, yoga studio, game room and 20 study rooms and lounges. Taft’s The Boundary @ West End was sold out when it opened in 2015. Its sister complex — Campus Edge — is a $54 million student housing project headed by Taft and Greenville-based Ward Holdings LLC. Its 275 apartments and 20,000 square feet of retail space are expected to open in 2019.

Uptown Greenville director Bianca Shoneman says 40,000 square feet of retail and 120,000 square feet of office space are under construction downtown. It will have plenty of shoppers and workers. “In 2012, we had 545 people living uptown, and by 2019 we’ll have 2,500 people living in our urban core. We’ve caught the ‘walkability’ bug, with our commitment to infrastructure to create a more walkable Greenville. Everything is interrelated, and we’re incorporating the most creative, informative development of our generation, and it’s happening right now.”

[/media-credit] Buildings are going up in Greenville, most notably around Vidant Medical Center and East Carolina University. Those efforts are having an effect across Pitt County.

Ground was broken for the $8.4 million Greenville Transportation Activity Center in November 2016. When it opens early next year, it will provide a single spot for riders to transfer among city and county buses, ECU Transit, Greyhound buses and shuttles headed to the airport, medical offices and hotels. “In essence, we have a transportation center that’s connected to the university and a walkable urban area,” Shoneman says. “Like Philadelphia, you can bus to town, get to a greenway, get to everywhere and live a very successful life.”

Vidant Medical Center is building a $170 million, 418,000-square-foot cancer center and 96-bed tower. It is scheduled to open next year. “The network of Vidant-supported cancer-care services spans across eight hospitals, three joint ventures, five radiation oncology sites and numerous outpatient clinics,” Campbell says. “Highly trained cancer navigators placed throughout the region and specialized by disease types will continue to serve as personal and knowledgeable points of contact for patients as they go through their cancer journey. As the leading resource for academic medicine in eastern North Carolina, our partnerships with providers offer advanced treatment options and care plans for patients from Ahoskie to Kenansville.”

Shoneman says it’s the perfect storm. “Our city council has invested in growing our city. Our university has invested in growing its campus, and we’re excited about our future. Our university and our hospital and our downtown are employment hubs, so for us to all come together and say ‘this place matters,’ that means the recruitment and retention of the best and the brightest. And we see that all coming together with the public and private investment we have on the books right now.”

Pitt County’s prosperity isn’t limited to Greenville. It’s rippling through the county, including Ayden, home to North Carolina’s official collard festival. The sleepy town of about 5,000 residents is about to wake up, says Town Manager Steven Harrell. “We are 5 miles from the actual city limits of Greenville. When the southwest bypass that will connect I-264 to an interchange in Ayden is complete in the summer of 2019, we will be eight minutes from the hospital, and that will have a tremendous impact on our growth. As far as positive effects of being close to a large city like Greenville, without a doubt we have folks who come looking to locate here, either residence wise or business wise, knowing that just down the road … is a city of virtually 100,000.”

Ayden is working to attract businesses. Warrenton-based Quilt Lizzy US LLC, a supplier of quilting, sewing and crafts materials, is renovating a 1915 Worthington Five & Dime downtown with help from a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant from Raleigh-based N.C. Department of Commerce’s Rural Development Office. The store should open in late 2018 or early 2019. “That’s going to be our domino,” Harrell says. “Then I’m certain we’ll end up with other craft stores, eateries, a boutique hotel.”

Woodworker and furniture-maker Stuart Kent, whose handmade bowls are commissioned by the N.C. Commerce Department as gifts for executives who relocate their business to the state, opened a store in Ayden in August. “He loved our downtown business district,” Harrell says. “If you look at downtown as a wheel, with spokes going out, A Quilt Lizzy will be at the hub with the furniture store at one of the spokes. It’s really going to be a game-changer.”

Ayden recently applied for a $2.8 million U.S. Economic Development Administration grant to pay for about half of the proposed 24,000-square-foot Eastern North Carolina Food Commercialization Center at its industrial park. “It will be a food hub for small farmers to bring their produce to be shipped and a training center for folks in the produce business,” Harrell says. It also will offer space for food processors and packagers and is expected to create about 250 jobs and more than $900 million of economic impact within 10 years.

Farmville, whose population is almost 5,000, recorded a 22.8% household income increase from 2010 to 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It was the most in the state during that period. “Certainly, if we were 10 or 15 miles farther from Greenville, that would not happen,” says Todd Edwards, the construction company owner. “We are living under the Greenville [N.C.] MSA umbrella. We can take advantage of what’s going on in Greenville and still keep our identity. Greenville is leading the way, but we have a lot of cool stuff going on here. Eastern North Carolina is kind of coming into its own. We’re excited to be a part of that, and we’re encouraging our neighbors to be part of that. There are some amazing things, and that’s the cool part of all this.”

Farmville isn’t giving up its identity. “Sometimes, when your borders touch, you’re absorbed into that larger community,” Edwards says. “Being on the hospital side, Farmville is a faster drive to Vidant than most of the communities near Greenville. It’s 10 minutes on a 70-miles-per-hour highway, so we’d be foolish not to try to attract those folks who want to live in a small town. We’re like a college town without a college.”

Farmville sees part of its future in the visual arts. It’s already known for The GlasStation, an ECU glass-blowing venue that hosts artists and classes in a remodeled gas station, and the East Carolina ArtSpace gallery opened in October. “The gallery is kind of a way to establish a foothold as a creative community, a platform where young artists can thrive,” Edwards says. “It will develop a flow of traffic through here, and we can have space for rent and competitive gallery commissions.”

Several investors have collaborated for Farmville’s version of Shark Tank, the television show that gives entrepreneurs an opportunity to pitch their latest and greatest ideas to investors. It welcomes proposals from prospective business owners wanting to invest in the 14-block downtown. Its initial rounds begin later this month. “There will be an actual elimination process, interview process and hopefully Farmville will get some brand-new businesses,” Edwards says. “If their business and their presentation is solid, some of the better ideas will win out.”

Edwards says Farmville is exploring adding a boutique hotel, and he recently met a Charlotte businessman who’s interested in opening a gym franchise. “He looked at our household income being on the rise and said he usually doesn’t consider places with fewer than 10,000 residents, but he completely ignored his demographics when he saw that.” Don Edwards (no relation to Todd) is known for preserving historic buildings by developing them into mixed-use space. He is eyeing Farmville projects after spending nearly 30 years in downtown Greenville. He purchased the 15,000-square-foot Farmville Hardware building to turn it into apartments and business offices, a $1.5 million project.

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