Iron Horse Industrial Park, Aberdeen

 

Towns like Aberdeen and Robbins might not be poised to land the next big automotive manufacturer, but Moore County’s economy could still take advantage of industrial development that’s occurring in the central part of the state.

Manufacturers like a $1.3 billion Toyota plant in Randolph County, which is expected to begin producing batteries for electric vehicles in 2025, could stand to benefit Moore County in more ways than one.

“I think it’s important for us to recognize there are economic development activities going on around us, in our surrounding counties, that impact us and can impact us in a very positive way potentially,” Natalie Hawkins, executive director of Partners in Progress, told the county commissioners this past week.

Hawkins took the reins at Partners in Progress, the public-private economic development organization serving all of Moore County, last May.

Last year, Partners in Progress fielded 54 leads on potential projects from companies seeking to locate in the region. That’s up from 44 in 2020 and 32 in 2019 — and nearly all of them were in manufacturing.

“Some of those we’re creating ourselves, so we’re identifying a company that might be a good fit for Moore County. Some of those are coming from the state,” she said. “On average, a little bit more than once a week we are responding to a request for information, we’re searching all of our industrial sites and buildings to see if we have a match or a fit for a particular business.”

Some of those leads have been suppliers for the new Toyota plant, which will be located at the Greensboro Randolph Megasite southeast of Greensboro. That plant is projected to employ about 1,750 people, and it will be less than an hour’s drive from Robbins and Carthage.

As executive director of Partners in Progress, Hawkins is working to bring high-paying industries to Moore County itself. Currently health care, resort and lodging, and the service industry comprise the lion’s share of employment opportunities here. Manufacturing accounts for a small fraction — about four percent.

Moore County’s best chance at recruiting a manufacturer may be at what’s known as the Iron Horse Industrial Park off of N.C. 211 near the Hoke County line.

The 127-acre site has access to all utilities: water, sewer, natural gas and railroad. The Aberdeen and Rockfish Railroad owns just over 50 acres of the site. The rest is under the ownership of Three Rivers Land Trust.

The site has been marketed, so far unsuccessfully, for well over a decade. Last year the property owners applied, with the support of the county commissioners, to the N.C. Railroad Company Build-Ready Sites program for a grant to cover 60 percent of the cost to clear and grade 40 acres of the Iron Horse site. If successful, the owners plan to pay the remaining 40 percent match.

That project would make room for 600,000 square feet of manufacturing space, significantly augmenting the handful of industrial buildings now available in Moore County.

“We respond to those 54 leads only half the time we’re actually able to respond and I would say 80 percent of the time it’s the Iron Horse site as a potential location for business,” Hawkins said.

“What we’re seeing is businesses want to start their operations quickly. They want ‘pad-ready’ sites that have all the infrastructure in place and I think that we are not as competitive as we could be here locally because we don’t have those types of sites and buildings.”

The Iron Horse site is also 45 minutes from the Triangle Innovation Point megasite under development in Chatham County. Oriented toward advanced manufacturing and biotechnology, that megasite is expected to have its first company in operation in the next year. The site has also been mentioned as a potential location for an Idaho-based manufacturer of computer chips. Such an investment would be in the billions of dollars and could also have a ripple effect in the form of ancillary businesses seeking to move to the region.

Attracting new industries isn’t the sole focus of economic development, though. Creating an environment where new businesses can grow organically, and helping existing businesses thrive and expand are two other facets of Partners in Progress’ mission.

Last month, Minhas Furniture House announced that it plans to double its workforce in Robbins over the next five years through an expansion assisted by more than $95,000 in state grants. Hawkins said that Partners in Progress has also assisted with smaller expansions: at K2 Solutions in Southern Pines and Sovereign Aerospace at the Moore County Airport.

“A lot of economic developers will focus their efforts on recruiting the big Toyota plant, for example, because that’s what really makes the news,” she said. “But in fact it’s really 60 to 80 percent of all jobs coming from existing businesses. Those businesses are in our communities now, they’re active, they’re supportive and those businesses I think really present a great opportunity for us.”

Workforce development undergirds all of those goals: supporting existing businesses and attracting new ones. To that end, Partners in Progress is working with the Moore County Chamber of Commerce to assess employers’ needs this year.

In a year where COVID-19 has helped drive down the number of job-seekers, leaving no shortage of vacancies, many of those needs deal with enhancing the quality of life for employees living on the wages companies are offering.

That ranges from affordable housing to access to child care, on top of things like education and job training.

When and if those jobs come, or if Moore County continues to grow as a bedroom community, business growth will be an inevitable aftershock of population growth. Hawkins said that the county has an opportunity to consider improving the infrastructure, namely broadband internet access and wastewater lines, along corridors that are best situated to handle commercial growth.

Some of those areas, like the N.C. 211 corridor west of Pinehurst and N.C. 15-501 between Pinehurst and Carthage, are coded as such in the county’s land use plan. The county could consider using COVID-19 relief funding for infrastructure.

“I think our opportunity is really to take a look at the infrastructure that’s there in those areas and make very targeted investments in infrastructure expansions,” Hawkins said. Whether that’s financially out of our pocket or someone else’s pocket, I do think that’s where we should be advocating for infrastructure improvements.”

(Story by Mary Kate Murphy, The Pilot)