Pitt County may have a history of being a rural area, but it’s growing quickly. East Carolina University is the fourth-largest university in the state and competes nationally in the number of graduates in family medicine.
By Kathy Blake
Pitt County’s roots are literally in the soil. Tobacco took hold in the late 1800s, leading to the construction of warehouses and processing plants. Other crops — sweet potatoes, peanuts, corn, cotton and soybeans — are plentiful most years. About 40% of Pitt County is farmland.
But urban growth has taken root as well. The population of Greenville, the county seat, has risen from 60,476 in 2000 to 93,137 in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. East Carolina University, the state’s fourth-largest university, boasts an enrollment of 28,962 and is home to the Brody School of Medicine, ranked first in the state and second nationally for the percentage of graduates in family medicine.
Greenville-based Vidant Health’s string of eight hospitals and other medical practices serve 29 counties. And Pitt’s nine towns and unincorporated communities are growing and attracting major industries and manufacturing.
“We have great assets, and we have to figure out how to use all [of them]. We have to keep a strategic focus,” says Kelly Andrews, associate director of marketing and recruitment for the Pitt County Development Commission. “We have to have talent retention and attractions to keep our ECU students here [and] make sure they have the opportunity to stay if they choose. When we have expansions in our industries, we need great talent. And that means expectations of things to do, like music and arts and culture and opportunities to be part of the community.”
Part of that retention begins with introducing young students to future possibilities. The county launched its Grow Local program in March for middle and high school students to visit county businesses and explore job fields. More than 2,000 kids signed up. Meanwhile, RAMP East is an emerging source for job seekers in advanced manufacturing.
Greenville has also joined the wave of unrestrained work environments with a modernized coworking space called Nucleus Uptown, which opened in August as a spot where freelancers, entrepreneurs, startups and the like can share an amenity-filled building.
And a new, nonprofit food commercialization center in the town of Ayden marries Pitt County’s agricultural history with technological advancements to help farmers sell, package and distribute produce, as well as provide an outlet for preparing value-added products for restaurants and merchants.
The food center will start small, then expand to statewide and national distribution as production amplifies.
“We are a welcoming community,” Andrews says, “and we have to present that to the world.”
She calls it connecting the dots.
“It’s what the county has been doing lately, with its change from agriculture and tobacco to the interior growth, and now [we’re] saying, ‘Here we are, future workforce. Stay put!’”
Ayden Mayor Steve Tripp experienced Pitt County’s history and sees its future.
“I’ve been living here all my life. I grew up in this community when it was rural,” Tripp, 62, says. “I’ve seen ECU transform and grow in size to over 20,000 students. I’ve seen the huge medical center, the trauma center, and then I [saw] the downtown of Greenville transformed. We have more of an urban look in that area.
“But I see agricultural areas surrounding them. It all started with agriculture, and the farmers, and the jobs they created [that generated revenue]. It allowed us to invest in those facilities, and now it’s coming back to agriculture again. It’s a good leveling-out. It’s finally coming back to agriculture here.”
Growing local workforce
Programs in Pitt County offer in-person job shadowing and training.
Last March, 2,700 middle and high school students from 17 Pitt County schools left their classrooms behind to visit area businesses, where they could see, hear and touch what actually
happens in a workplace for one week.
Grow Local, a Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce initiative sponsored by the Pitt County Economic Development Commission, allows teenagers to interact with career opportunities in their own neighborhoods in hopes that venturing beyond textbooks will keep them in the local workforce after graduation.
“It is not a field trip,” says Greenville-Pitt County Chamber President and CEO Kate Teel. “You can walk through and see a pharmaceutical company, or you can put your hands on a forklift, and you can ask, ‘What kind of education [do] you need to have that job?’”
Companies throughout the state are competing with each other for a workforce during a low unemployment period. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the state’s unemployment rate was 4.2% in July. This low rate has workforce-development experts looking in their own backyard to encourage students to engage with local industries.
“A lot of our larger employers have a workforce that is aging out or have service-type jobs in which they have a difficult time filling the roles,” Teel says. “You hear it on the national level, but when [we] hear it on a local level day after day, we know we have to do something about it, or it will have an impact on our local economy.”
Grow Local launched with a pilot program in July 2018 when five businesses hosted 100 students. In March, a range of businesses opened their doors to explain their daily operations and answer questions for a much larger group.
J. Morgan Design Associates Inc., a Greenville company that creates custom interiors, hosted about 10 students. “We told them an interior design degree would be ideal for this career,” says Katherine Brantley, design assistant and showroom manager. She says such programs make a true difference in showing young students what life is actually like in an industry post-graduation.
“In college, you get all the basics, but it’s not until you’re actually there that you put it to use and gain experience,” she says. “You never know what kind of client will walk through that door. You’re taught your skills [and] your standards, but you’re not taught about what’s going to come in.”
Grow Local isn’t the only program dedicated to getting students in touch with Pitt County industries. Regional Advanced Manufacturing Pipeline East — also known as RAMP East — debuted in July in Pitt, Beaufort, Bertie, Martin, Hertford and Hyde counties as a Golden LEAF Foundation grant-funded program to train job seekers of all ages for advanced manufacturing. As with Grow Local, the emphasis is on preparing and retaining the hometown workforce.
“We have met over 300 people at regional job fairs, local high schools and community college programs,” says Christy Harris, a recruiter for the five-county region. “We are communicating with local manufacturers to include them in the process in order to better serve their needs.”
Harris says eight companies have signed with RAMP East, including Domtar Corp., Weyerhaeuser Co., Penco Products Inc., Mestek Inc., Hyster-Yale Materials Handling Inc., AccuLink, Jack A. Farrior Inc. and Fuji Silysia Chemical Ltd.
“It’s a collaborative effort to help local manufacturers fill their workforce needs. In order to supply a steady pipeline of qualified candidates, local community colleges are offering a course to introduce manufacturing concepts,” she says. “Businesses weigh in on the course content. Upon completion of the course, participating businesses offer an interview to job seekers.”
The course she’s referring to is RAMP East’s Advanced Manufacturing Institute, which touches on six key topics including an introduction to manufacturing, general industry OSHA-10 and problem-solving.
After completing AMI, students can continue their education at the community college or interview at one of the eight participating companies. This is appealing for those who are looking to get into the workforce quickly.
“If you have a high school degree, there are jobs you can start now,” Teel says.
Programs like RAMP East and Grow Local can also serve as a check that students are taking the right courses for their future career, according to Teel, as well as determine if their ideal job truly is a good fit for their interests.
“We can encourage them to stay on the path they’re on or to do something different,” Teel says. “They might think they want to be a nurse, then find they’re terrified of needles. They have plenty of time to switch.”
Back to its roots
Ayden turns to its agriculture background to create local jobs.
The town of Ayden, 11 miles south of Greenville, is about 3 square miles with a population just above 5,000. It hosts an annual collards festival, has nearly a dozen churches near the center of town, and is promoted on its website as “a clean, safe and attractive community that encompasses characteristics of a village.”
“But what our citizens want,” Mayor Steve Tripp says, “is jobs for our community.”
The potential solution — a food-commercialization center that has been in the works for six years — is rooted in Ayden’s history. It all started when Tripp attended a meeting in Washington, D.C., with other town officials and visited the U.S. Economic Development Administration. “They said, ‘Look at your resources and develop job creation with … what’s in your wheelhouse, what’s the biggest asset that will drive the economy,’” he says. “Pitt County was the No. 1 producer of tobacco anywhere in the world, so it came back to agriculture.”
This means a 24,000-square-foot food-commercialization center at the end of Levi Drive in Ayden’s Worthington Industrial Park. Named the Eastern North Carolina Food Commercialization Center, it will operate as a nonprofit in partnership with the town of Ayden. An application was first sent to the EDA in 2013. The organization requires a local government be part of the application process.
The goal is to open the building in 2020, pending passage of the state budget. The building will be operated by the nonprofit and provide about 10 jobs initially, eventually growing to 25 employees on-site. Town Manager Steve Harrell says business analyses show the center could generate about 240 jobs, including farmers to grow increased amounts of product, local entrepreneurs to create and package products, and truckers for shipping.
The center will have a processing area for washing and sorting fresh fruits and vegetables, an area for packing and shipping, space for canning and bottling local products such as barbecue sauce and salsa, storage space, a flash freezer, and rentable space for entrepreneurs and companies that produce value-added products. The long-term goal is for produce originating in Ayden to be distributed statewide, nationally and beyond.
“I didn’t realize until I got to Ayden that farmers did not have somewhere to send their produce to be packaged and distributed, or that some of the major players who need the products our farmers have were going out of state,” Harrell says. “For instance, we have some major restaurants who are having their salsas packed in jars in other states. So one of the things this center will do is offer packaging and distribution to smaller farms.”
Already on the occupancy list is Durham-based Num Num Sauce Co., which makes barbecue and grilling sauces. The company will use the center once it opens to package and jar its product.
If all goes well, local experts believe the food-commercialization center could generate even more jobs and revenue for the local economy as the years go on.
“We’ll bring these companies in, we’ll train the workers to make their products. Then, if they outgrow our facility, they’ll purchase land and build their own facility. Then we bring in workers and train them on the next company project,” says Keith Purvis of Greenville Produce Co., one of four members of the nonprofit’s board of directors.
“A lot of this stuff, you can’t learn at a regular school. It’s a unique industry. There’s a lot of science to it, but there’s a lot of art to it. You have to feel, make judgment calls and you have to know how to do it.”
Greenville Produce has seven trucks that distribute from Raleigh to the coast and as far north as Virginia. This industry knowledge will help once the commercialization center is up and running next year. “It helps me know what the markets are doing,” Purvis says. “The main thing is it keeps me abreast of what consumers are wanting and what other regions are growing.”
Other board members are David Mayo of East Carolina University’s Miller School of Entrepreneurship; Brad Hufford of the Pitt County Economic Development Commission; Keith Wheeler, executive director of ECU’s Office of National Security and Industry Initiatives; Stacy Thomas, vice president of Ham Farms in Snow Hill; and Tripp.
Harrell says the facility will cost $4 million to build. After the state budget is passed, a formal application will be sent to the U.S. Economic Development Association to help with costs. Because of hurricanes Matthew and Florence, the Ayden area is eligible for disaster funding, meaning the EDA could supply as much as 80% of the $4 million, with the remaining $800,000 coming from state funds. That would leave $1.7 million of state money to be used toward the estimated $2 million for equipment and first-year operating costs. He hopes Golden LEAF grants will fill the gaps.
“We’ve done a feasibility study that shows the center should be self-sustaining after 24 months,” Harrell says. “We’re hoping to use that 80% until then.”
The food-commercialization center is also getting input from ECU, where students are constructing blockchain technology that will be able to trace a product from the farm to the customer. Blockchain technology refers to a growing list of records that are linked together. Each new piece of data is a block that is connected to other blocks or pieces of data. It requires computers, scanners, traceable sensors and codes.
“A consumer can be in a grocery store or in a restaurant and see what’s happened with their product — from where it was grown, how long it was in a cooler, how long it was on the truck,” Purvis says. “That way, if there is an issue, we can isolate it in a minute. Someone did a test on it, and it was done in seven seconds. It’s very complex and very expensive. Fortunately, we have some grant money to help us put this program together, and I believe it will be replicated throughout the country once we get the kinks out.”
Tripp says the goal of the Eastern North Carolina Food Commercialization Center is to leverage Ayden’s history and knowledge of the agricultural industry to attract other businesses to the town, allowing them to meet demand in the future.
And, if the new technologies put to work in the center help change the agriculture industry nationwide, that would be OK too.
“We have a real chance to be the leader in agriculture,” Purvis says. “We want to be the Silicon Valley of fresh food in North Carolina. That’s the kind of energy we want to create.”
From classical to coworking
Greenville joins the craze with Nucleus Uptown, a business hub in a former music school.
Inside a former music school building in uptown Greenville, a real estate investor, a snack vendor, a medical technology employee and a college senior dabbling in the stock market gather and work separately, though closely congregated. The kitchen is stocked with free coffee and snacks, a sitting area with comfy couches and chairs has tabletop outlets for computers and phones, and the open, airy design encourages socializing and networking outside private, sound-proof offices.
Nucleus Uptown is Greenville’s first coworking space, a trend giving freelancers, entrepreneurs and other businesspeople an alternative to working remotely from a coffee shop, bookstore or their living room sofa.
Richard Dalyai, a cerebrovascular neurosurgeon at Vidant Medical Group, and his wife, Catherine, bought the former Wright School of Music building on Evans Street in January for $560,000. Richard says the couple spent about $95,000 on renovations before opening the coworking space in August. Catherine, a nurse practitioner with Vidant, manages Nucleus Uptown’s day-to-day operations.
“We wanted to do something exciting and bring something to the community since there really wasn’t any coworking in Greenville,” Catherine says. “The location couldn’t be more perfect. It’s right across from Five Points Plaza in the uptown area, so if you want to take a break from work and take a walk and see what’s going on, it’s right there.”
Nucleus opened Aug. 5. By late September, it had 10 members. “It’s really a mix of people with their own businesses, but we see a lot of freelancers as well,” she says. “The majority are people with startups and small businesses. We’re not focused on one type of person — it’s just anyone who wants to come work in a supportive atmosphere.”
Membership is $155 per month with access to all amenities, and $460 to $740 per month for private- and small-office spaces. The location is within walking distance to restaurants, breweries, art shops and East Carolina University, where nearly 29,000 students are enrolled as of late September. Tenants use an app on their phones to access the building at all hours. Parking is available for an additional charge.
It’s a good match with ECU’s new degree program in entrepreneurship, which had 85 students at its September debut and 100 more in its certificate courses. The degree requires 120 semester hours and includes an array of courses such as financial and managerial accounting, money management, new venture launch, and professional development and ethical leadership.
“We’re very supportive of Rick and Nucleus Uptown,” says Michael Harris, director of ECU’s Miller School of Entrepreneurship, which is part of the College of Business. “There is something to be said about creating these special environments where you have this sense of community and a place where you want to be. There are some places where they’re cold and not very energetic, and then there are places that are inviting, where you can have a conversation, and it’s easy to be creative and think in that innovative way. Nucleus has that creative energy.”
Renovations on Nucleus’ 4,900-square-foot building, which opened in 1928, included exposing the original brick walls and laying commercial-grade wood-like vinyl tile. “It’s very open and airy-feeling. We have a mid-century modern vibe. We want it to feel comfortable,” Catherine says. “There are cool, modern fixtures all over the main area and a long hallway toward the back where the music instruction was, so there’s soundproofing for eight private offices.”
The building has staples such as high-speed commercial Wi-Fi, printers and scanners. The owners also are working with OneMoreCustomer, a monthly webcast coaching session for business owners, to show its webcast feed in the building.
“It’s that flexible space where you can shut the door and interact with your client, and there are times where you can be interactive and around other creative people who bring the right enthusiasm,” Harris says. “These are important attributes.”
Working around others can provide many benefits, including feedback on ideas and connections to other industries.
“Nucleus is a great addition to our system,” says Kelly Andrews, associate director of marketing and recruitment for the Pitt County Development Commission. “Some people need that launching pad.”
The Dalyais say they’ve created a welcoming environment where people can come and go with freedom to adhere to their individual schedules.
“It’s really set up as a place where people can work,” Catherine says. “We want them to feel comfortable, like a home away from home. I think people have embraced it.