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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Richmond County rebounding with big hopes for 700-acre site

I was talking recently with Martie Butler, the economic developer for Richmond County. There’s a fair amount going on in the county, which is on the South Carolina border, where the Piedmont, Coastal Plain and Sandhills converge. There have been a bunch of plant expansions announced and they’ve just repaved the Rockingham Speedway where NASCAR’s top drivers used to race twice a year.

Butler is spending a lot of her time on the new industrial park that the county is developing, a more than 700-acre site a couple of miles from the state line.

The property, two miles south of Interstate 74 below Hamlet, is owned by Z.V. Pate Inc., one of the region’s oldest businesses, headquartered in neighboring Scotland County. Richmond County has an option on it. It is called the Energy Way Industrial Park, and lies across Airport Road from Duke Energy’s Smith Energy Complex, a more than 1,800-megawatt facility, one of Duke’s largest gas-fired generation operations in the Carolinas. The Duke complex is one reason that the utility is the county’s largest taxpayer.

When I talked with Butler, she was getting ready to show a prospect the new industrial park after we wrapped up. She is seeing “an extreme amount of interest” in the park.

“We’ve got an international client coming in with the Economic Development Partnership [of North Carolina] taking a look at it. I’m going to say this past year, it has been one of the top sites in North Carolina, as far as being recommended for heavy utilities.” Besides having access to ample power from Duke and Pee Dee electric co-op, it has two natural gas lines on the site, as well as county water and city of Rockingham sewer. For the sewer infrastructure, the county has received $1.5 million from Golden LEAF Foundation, and $1million from NC Commerce.

Political and civic leaders in rural areas take economic development very seriously, because nothing comes easy. They get involved at the state level. Gene McLaurin, a former Rockingham mayor and former state senator, is chairman of the EDPNC, for example.

How she got there

Butler, a Yadkin County native, is a Campbell University graduate with an MBA from Gardner-Webb.  She spent six years with N.C. Commerce back when it was the state’s economic development lead agency, before that function was split off to the newly created EDPNC.  Butler worked in the southeastern regional office, working with 13 counties to help them attract industry and keep existing jobs.  Particularly for small, understaffed rural counties, economic development help from the state plays a crucial role, and the state recruiters get to know locals well.

When Richmond County hired her in 2013 as management analyst and economic developer, it was coming off a rough couple of decades. Foreign competition and automation eliminated blue-collar jobs throughout North Carolina, and especially in the rural counties along the South Carolina border. Globalization and technology knocked their economies over like bowling pins. In 1990, Richmond County had nearly 8,300 manufacturing jobs. Among the top employers were textile and apparel mills. By 2010, nearly two-thirds of the county’s manufacturing jobs were gone.

But then Richmond started growing its manufacturing base again, with aggressive recruiting and a better trained workforce. By 2020, it had added back nearly 400 manufacturing jobs. The unemployment rate, which reached 16% in 2011, has come down to the 5-6% range. Still higher than the state’s 3.9%. Richmond has a little under 43,000 residents today, down around 3,900 since 2010.

One reason Butler went to work for the county is that the leadership “just had their act together.”

“They were hungry for economic development. It is a rural community. You’re not next to a metro area, but they were hungry and they wanted it. They were putting skin in the game. They were trying to develop industrial parks,” she says. “They were looking forward.” The attitude among county politicians was that, OK, we’ve lost a lot of the mills, they’re not coming back, we have to reinvent ourselves.

And they learned. “They were really big on diversification,” says Butler. A lot of rural counties were heavily dependent on furniture, textiles and apparel. For most of the 20th century, these provided hundreds of thousands of jobs in North Carolina for folks with high school educations, or less, but a strong work ethic. When trade barriers came down, these sectors were hammered at the same time.

“We’ve been pretty good on diversification. About 50% of our top employers are still manufacturing,” says Butler.  But they are in a variety of industries, and most of them are mid-sized.  “Fifty to 300 [employees] is our sweet spot.”

Recent wins

This year there have been a number of significant job announcements in the county. Cabinet-maker American Woodmark is doubling its Richmond County operations, adding 131 jobs. The average salary will be $44,748, higher than the county median of $38,035. When the expansion is complete, the company will have 600,000 square feet of manufacturing space. Manufactured-home maker Cavco Industries took over the Hamlet facility used by Volumetric, which moved its operations to the northeast. Impact Plastics expanded for the third time in recent years. Direct Pack, which makes food packaging from recycled PET, is adding a 200,000 square foot facility and nearly another 100 jobs.

All told, the county has announced the creation of 250 new jobs and $81 million in capital investment in 2022.

“We’ve had a fairly good year,” says Butler.

The Speedway project

The speedway project was part of $45.8 million in grants from the state’s Motorsports Relief Fund to boost tourism and hospitality. The Rock project got $9 million and the nearby Rockingham Dragway improvements $485,000.

NASCAR’s push to expand nationally shifted the circuit’s top races out of tracks like Rockingham and North Wilkesboro into bigger markets.  North Wilkesboro’s upgrade, which was allocated $18 million in grant money, came as the track landed the NASCAR all-star race in May, which has boosted hopes for a return to Rockingham.

Part of the money for The Rock went for repaving. Part of it will pay for an equally essential upgrade.

“What a lot of people don’t realize,” says Butler, is “there are over 50 septic tanks on the speedway property that served it well back when NASCAR was here and you had two big races. You’d just fill ‘em up and pump ‘em out. But if we want to make that a much bigger venue, you need wastewater.” So, the Rock will get connected to public sewer.

“We would love to have NASCAR back,” says Butler.  “But there is 5-600 acres there total. We had a large-scale concert there a few years back. That entire complex can be utilized for large-scale festivals that are two and three-day events, because of the camping on-site, the facilities.  There’s a lot of good things happening out there.”

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