The North Carolina Economic Development Association honored its top achievers at its annual conference last month in Wilmington. The award winners, representing both big cities and small towns, helped arrange significant deals that brought jobs and investments
to their communities.
DEAL OF THE YEAR
Pisgah Labs’ 2022 expansion in Transylvania County was not just an economic win, but helps establish an area best known for tourism and retirement living as a player in biopharmaceuticals. Pisgah Labs started in 1981 and now holds 31 patents. The company manufactures active ingredients in medicines and the $55 million expansion added 57 jobs to the site, tripling its workforce, and allowing it to manufacture intravenous medicines.
Transylvania County Manager Jaime Laughter describes the project as the largest single economic development project in recent history. The new jobs will have an annual salary of about $60,000, compared with the county’s current average wage of about $39,000.
Hodges helped Pisgah Labs recognize the county of about 33,000 residents has an available workforce with the skills and education programs that align with biotechnology. Hodges started working in Transylvania County in February 2022 after about six years with Henderson County’s economic development group. He has a political science and communications degree from Brevard College.
DEAL OF THE YEAR
California-based SteriTek wanted to start its first East Coast site on a property that had enough surrounding land for additional life sciences employers. The medical and pharmaceutical sterilization company purchased 85 acres as part of a $71 million investment that will create 50 jobs in Burlington.
SteriTek plans to use about 13 acres, leaving room for four more building sites, serving as a long-term opportunity for life sciences investments in Burlington. Bishop was especially helpful in assisting SteriTek to find its own property, as well as land for future development.
The SteriTek project will help Alamance County brand itself as a life-sciences hub. This project took advantage of Alamance Community College’s decision to start a biotechnology center. The move builds on the momentum of the burgeoning biotech, pharmaceutical, and medical technology industries in the region bordering Research Triangle Park in Durham and Wake counties. Burlington is also the headquarters of testing giant Labcorp.
Bishop and Putnam worked for almost a year in recruiting SteriTek to Alamance County, guiding the project through the local incentives process. “Their work was crucial to massage the bumps in the road and get the project across the line,” wrote Alamance Chamber President Reagan Gural and Blake Moyer, formerly with the city of Burlington’s economic development agency, in nominating the duo. Moyer is now president of the Surry County Economic Development Partnership.
The new positions are expected to pay on average $52,500, which exceeds Alamance County’s average annual wage of about $46,200.
DEAL OF THE YEAR
Almost one-third of Chatham County’s roughly 78,000 residents travel outside the county for work, many of them headed to neighboring Wake, Orange, Durham or Guilford counties. Those numbers seem certain to shift in future years after back-to-back colossal economic wins last year.
First, Vietnam-based VinFast announced in March it would invest $4 billion and create 7,500 jobs in an electric-vehicle plant in Chatham County. At the time, it was the largest economic development project announced in state history. The county’s economic development team led by Smith followed that up in September with the $5 billion, 1,800-job Wolfspeed project — topping VinFast as a state record for investment.
“Winning one of those monsters is overwhelming. Winning two of those brings the overwhelmingness up a notch,” says Smith, who has been recruiting businesses in North Carolina since 1999.
Durham-based Wolfspeed, which was called Cree until 2021, makes silicon carbide semiconductors for electric vehicles, rail systems, appliances and other products.
Before arriving in Chatham County in January 2021, the Durham native and East Carolina University graduate had spent more than 20 years working with local organizations and the N.C. Department of Commerce. At his previous leadership position in neighboring Lee County, his successes included four of the top 25 job announcements in BNC’s 2019-2020 rankings. Smith has also worked for local economic development groups in Davidson, Iredell and Stanly counties.
“A lot of people put in a whole lot of work before I got here,” Smith says. “And I’m not talking months, I’m talking years.” He also credits County Manager Dan LaMontange, County Attorney Bob Hagemann and former colleague Sam Rauf as major contributors to landing Wolfspeed. (Rauf moved to Wake County Economic Development last year.) Property owners of the two megasites had faith in the county’s efforts, says Smith.
“The minute I started (in Chatham County). we were on fire,” says Smith of his role. “I was a part of a winning team.”
EMERGING LEADER OF THE YEAR
Growing up in Warren County, Charla Duncan had her future planned. “The story of success a lot of times growing up in a small town looks like moving away,” says Duncan. After receiving a bachelor’s degree at UNC Greensboro in 2008, she attended graduate school in New York City and taught high school students in High Point and Charlotte.
By 2016, she was ready to return home. “I came to accept I am just a small town girl, and that’s OK.” Part of her job, she says, is challenging the notions of what’s possible in rural North Carolina. What happens in a county of fewer than 19,000 residents can make a splash in a state approaching 11 million people, she believes.
Duncan worked in Granville County before taking a job as the county manager’s assistant in Warren County in 2019. She was named economic development director in August 2020. Her agency was renamed Community and Economic Development. “It’s been my charge to take us into more community development work — housing, transportation, educational attainment, and things like that where you don’t often see traditional economic development focused.”
Brady Martin, who chairs the county economic development group, says Duncan has helped bring millions of dollars for broadband expansion. Warren County also has gained more than $3.5 million in grants for utility improvements, a farmers market and other projects. She assisted textile company Glen Raven’s decision to invest $82 million and create 205 jobs in 2021, “the largest business expansion project in the county in
30-plus years,” Martin says. That project received a $1 million state economic grant.
Duncan is seeking to persuade the state to revive passenger rail service from Warrenton to Raleigh, which would boost the economy, health care and cultural opportunities. She and her husband organize community soccer games at Mill Hill Brewery in Warrenton. She and a friend hold trivia nights twice each month at Bragging Rooster, a meadery and brewery.
“It’s events like that where people feel a connection to a place,” she says. Duncan is working toward becoming a certified economic developer through the N.C. EDA with courses at East Carolina University.
ECONOMIC DEVELOPER OF THE YEAR
In 2009, Marvin Price wasn’t sure what to do with his new political science degree from Alabama’s University of Montevallo. An internet search led him to Auburn University for a master’s degree in economic development. From there he interned at Alabama’s economic development group, and then worked for the Birmingham Business Alliance.
In 2016 he left his native state to join the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, where he was vice president before jumping to his current post in November 2020.
“I got a taste of it and I just never wanted to let it go,” says Price. “Even today, when I get a [request for information], I feel like I’m 24 again and just starting out. That’s an opportunity for you to show off your community, that’s an opportunity for our county, that’s an opportunity for you to help someone get a job.”
He has helped recruit, create and retain 9,000 jobs and $5.1 billion in investments to the state. His efforts led his peers to name Price the state’s economic developer of the year.
In Greensboro, he has been part of some of the state’s biggest job announcements. In the past 18 months, Greensboro and Guilford County have landed expansions and new businesses such as Boom Supersonic, LT Apparel, IQE, TAT Piedmont Aviation and Marshall Aerospace. Those companies represent $628 million in projected investment and potentially 2,233 jobs.
“Maybe he is the community’s good luck charm,” says Shahid Rana, senior program manager for Mecklenburg County Economic Development.
Price, who is known for his bow ties, says his southern drawl helps put people at ease. “He has the ability to listen for what a company needs and then see how we as an organization can help them,” says Megan Mabry, the Greensboro Chamber’s executive vice president of marketing.
The state’s third-largest city touts some advantages over its larger rivals, Charlotte and Raleigh. An outer loop interstate mitigates traffic congestion. Piedmont Triad International Airport has become an aviation manufacturing and repair hub. Four area colleges serve about 50,000 students annually: UNC Greensboro, North Carolina A&T State University, High Point University and Guilford College. N.C. A&T is the nation’s largest historically Black university, a selling point for companies seeking a more diversified workforce.
Businesses visiting the downtown Chamber office often note the International Civil Rights Center and Museum across the street. “It opens their eyes,” Price says. Greensboro’s diversity, infrastructure and pro-business leaders make it a community on the rise, he says.
“North Carolina is often cited as one of the best states to do business, and I’m in the center of it all.”
Donny Hicks graduated from UNC Charlotte in 1983 with a degree in political science. The next year, while working on a master’s degree in public administration from UNC Chapel Hill, Hicks joined Gaston County Economic Development. He was promoted to the director’s job the following year, and continues to help bring jobs and investment to the county just west of Charlotte.
“Eventually I’m going to want to do something else, but right now I couldn’t be happier,” says Hicks, a two-time winner of the association’s economic developer of the year award. It helps that Gaston County is in higher demand by industry than at any time in the past 39 years, he says.
This year, Hicks received the President’s Award, given at the discretion of the group’s president, Chris Platé, who is executive director of Monroe-Union County Economic Development.
“There are only a few people in our business who deserve to be on the Mount Rushmore of economic development, and Donny’s body of work over the years makes him one of them,” says Platé. “It’s one thing to be successful in the easiest of times, it’s another thing to be successful in the difficult times.”
Hicks’ late father, Gary Hicks, was Gastonia’s longtime city manager. Historically, Gaston County’s economy was centered on textiles, which had peak employment there in 1970. By 1980, the U.S. industry was in a steady decline due to lower-cost imports.
“It was about coming to a place that was in transition and creating a new economy,” says Hicks on his decision to work in Gaston.
“We’d be lost without him,” says Gaston County Commission Chair Chad Brown, who’s been in office 13 years. “He’s the one who has helped shape this county into what it is today. He understands what it takes and his staff is second to none.”
Gaston’s recent successes have included CaroMont Health’s plans to invest $325 million, much of it for a new hospital opening in 2024 in Belmont. Gastonia built a downtown stadium, which attracted a independent league baseball team.
Gaston County has seen 5 million square feet of industrial space built in the past two years, and expects the same amount to be built in the next two years. A total of 7 million square feet of industrial space was built during Hicks’ first 37 years. Companies adding industrial space include Amazon and the U.S. Postal Service.
Hicks’ work ethic and skills of persuasion for attracting prospective companies have led to growth in Gaston County, says Grant Miller, a senior vice president for Colliers International. He notes that economic development has transitioned from collecting census data at a library to accessing information online.
“Donny Hicks gets it and he understands what needs to be done and he’s willing to roll up his sleeves and do the work,” says Miller.
Hicks chairs the North Carolina Community College Foundation, which promotes workforce development. He is a past president of the N.C. EDA. He’s an advocate for working with potential competing counties while remaining loyal to Gaston County, says Platé.
“He’s the multi-tool of economic developers. He can do anything and everything he does, he does well.” ■