Town square: Sanford’s sons

 In Town Square

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By Jim Pomeranz

Last October, when Ryan Elliott and his partners opened Libations, a specialty wine and beer store, there was little fanfare about the new retailer in Sanford, a central North Carolina city of nearly 30,000. Celebration is usually reserved for factories moving in or expanding. Sanford, with a manufacturing base that makes up a third of total employment, is a blue-collar town in modestly growing Lee County. While Elliott, 36, didn’t add much to the employment base, his store is helping create a more dynamic city. “This is just what Sanford needs more of,” Mayor Chet Mann says. “Young people moving to Sanford, establishing small businesses, making the city unique and attractive for more of the same.”

Before moving back home to Sanford, Elliott spent five years in Raleigh, where he managed a wine and beer store. Lower housing costs were a key factor in his return. “Still, my wife, Emily, and I were commuting every day to Raleigh to work,” he says. “We were shopping in Raleigh, dining in Raleigh, doing everything in Raleigh except sleeping.”

His store creates new opportunity. “There was nothing in Sanford like it,” Elliott says. “The building renovations along Chatham Street in the heart of town made this an inviting location. And, we were growing fond of Sanford, the small-town atmosphere, a good place to raise our daughter.”

For all the many small businesses that are changing Sanford, the community relies on current manufacturers to expand and new companies to locate in Lee County to keep its economy growing. Like much of North Carolina, the county’s economy has come full circle over the last decade. Jobs were aplenty in the mid-2000s, when the unemployment rate declined to 5.2%. Then the recession hit, with manufacturers particularly slammed. Lee County unemployment topped 15% in May 2009, and four and a half years later, at the end of 2013,  the rate remained above 10%, depicting the sluggish recovery.

In the ensuing three years, Lee County unemployment has fallen to 5.4%, reflecting new hiring and former workers no longer seeking jobs. Fewer people work in the county than a decade ago, though its population has grown by 5%, or about 3,000 residents, federal filings show. Still, the improved economy shows up in paychecks, with per capita income gaining 7% over the previous year to about $34,650 in 2015 after stagnating for a decade.

“Manufacturing usually supplies about 12-15% of jobs in most communities,” says Bob Joyce, executive director of economic development for Lee County. “But here, it’s 34%, [and] when we lost jobs, most were in the manufacturing sector. Getting them back was slower here than other places. Our economy relies a lot on manufacturing. But now, we’re doing a lot better.”

Results of local elections in the last five years helped. The average age of the Sanford City Council has declined to about 50 from older than 60, while the voters in 2013 passed a $14 million bond issue to improve roads, parks and greenways. Sidewalk repairs have made downtown Sanford more appealing to pedestrians.

“The makeup of the city council moved the agenda much further in a much faster fashion,” says Mann, who was 47 when elected mayor in 2013. “This community for years had split votes at city, county and schools that gridlocked us. After the last few election cycles, all boards have voted much more together with very few split votes.”

In 2014, the Sanford Area Growth Alliance, a public-private partnership, was formed to promote the area and recruit business. The group combined efforts of the county’s economic-development agency with the Sanford Chamber of Commerce.

The list of manufacturing businesses in Sanford and Lee County would make President Trump proud. New York-based Coty Inc., the cosmetics company with brands including Calvin Klein and Clairol, opened its plant in 1969 and now employs about 1,500. Peoria, Ill.-based Caterpillar Inc. has similar employment and has produced more than 250,000 backhoes and other machines in the county since 1999. Other sizeable employers include Pentair PLC, Moen Inc., Pfizer, GKN PLC and Magneti Marelli SPA, an Italian auto-parts company that has operated in Sanford for 40 years and now has about 400 employees.

“We want to keep recruiting manufacturing jobs, especially small factories,” says Joyce, noting the average pay is often double that of the county’s health care, leisure and hospitality workers. “Our manufacturing base is diversified. … We feel we are now in a good position to withstand economic cycles.”

Sanford also has a prime location, a 40-minute drive to Cary and slightly longer to downtown Raleigh, Raleigh-Durham International Airport and Research Triangle Park. Its airport takes liberal use of the location, calling itself Raleigh Executive Jetport. More than 150 airplanes are based there, quadruple the number when it opened 20 years ago. The city is also a half-hour commute to Fort Bragg through a rapidly developing stretch of neighboring Harnett County.

“Despite all the amenities in the larger communities around us, the young people I talk with like the small-town feel of Sanford, the uniqueness of the business community, the shops where they know your size or your wife’s favorite color,” Joyce says. “There’s a special security in knowing your children’s teachers, sending them to the same school every year, not being redistricted frequently, being able to call the principal or the superintendent whenever you wish. Being invested in the community is something the younger citizens talk about.”

Ryan Elliott wants Libations to be part of Sanford’s transition. “In a short period of time, we are seeing success in our business, creating some great relationships with our customers,” he says.

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