DOBSON — In a county that has lost thousands of textile and other jobs in recent years, a rosy economic forecast is not always issued. But that was the case Friday during a gathering at Surry Community College.
Surry Economic Development Partnership (EDP) President Todd Tucker told about 140 business and governmental leaders from across the county that 2018 will be “very good” for the local economy.
Tucker, speaking during the 23rd-annual meeting of the Economic Development Partnership held at the Shelton-Badgett North Carolina Center for Viticulture and Enology on the SCC campus, said 2017 was “a warmup year for us,” which will produce benefits this year.
He expects much growth in the retail sector in particular.
“I think there’s going to be some good and bad with that,” the county’s chief economic-development official said.
When the economy is in a growth phase, as it is now, some “churning” will occur, according to Tucker, describing a predominant situation of new businesses coming in, which leads to some closures among others.
He also mentioned the “Amazon effect,” the ongoing evolution and disruption of the retail market stemming from increased e-commerce. That effect refers to Amazon’s domination of online sales which has sparked much of the disruption.
“It’s going to be an interesting year for retail,” Tucker said.
The pace for this was set in December, when Aldi Inc. broke ground for a new 21,000-square-foot grocery store on the former site of Gaunce’s Cafeteria in Mount Airy.
This represents an investment by the German-based corporation of more than $2.6 million for construction, and in excess of a dozen jobs.
Tucker also recognized a key industrial development during 2017 at the Altec Industries plant just outside Mount Airy. The company, a supplier of trucks and equipment for the electric utility, telecommunications and other industries, received a $500,000 state grant in August.
It was targeted to remodel Altec’s existing building for new manufacturing, office and other space as part of an expansion including the creation of 50 jobs and an investment of more than $5 million.
“We’re hoping it’s just one of many,” Tucker said of the expansion during Friday’s meeting, when Altec General Manager Ben Griffin was presented with a plaque honoring that accomplishment.
Tucker said there are other positive signs for the local economy, including an unemployment rate that has settled around the 3.8 percent to 4.2 percent range.
The official jobless rate often is questioned as a true barometer of employment levels, the Economic Development Partnership president acknowledged. “The important part is the trend number is down,” he said.
“Are we a boom town? No,” Tucker said of the need for more economic development.
Needed: Sites, Buildings
One factor that might be holding Surry County back in terms of recruiting new companies is a lack of available sites or buildings, which industries often demand.
This was highlighted by the keynote speaker for Friday’s annual meeting, Christopher Chung, chief executive officer of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. It does the same kind of work as local entities such as the Surry EDP, but on a statewide level.
“Companies need a site to build on or a building to move into,” said Chung, who used the word “product” to describe such resources.
He added that 70 percent of manufacturing clients exploring start-ups in North Carolina initially request to look at a shell building or one vacated by another industry. Often this is motivated by a desire to save money.
“It’s very competitive,” Chung added regarding landing new companies. “One area where rural counties fall out of the competition is they simply don’t have enough product.”
During his remarks, the keynote speaker turned to Tucker at one point and asked what Surry County now has in the way of choice sites, such as a building or site with ready interstate highway and water and sewer access.
“Nothing,” Tucker replied.
While praising its tourism and other segments as viable economic-development components, including workforce training provided through the community college, Chung said Surry is not going to compete for new industry “if somebody else in North Carolina has that product.”
“What does the perfect shell building look like?” Greg Perkins, a Mount Airy businessman, asked Chung during a question-and-answer period.
Chung said structures of more than 50,000 square feet are desired, up to the 75,000-to-80,000-square-foot range.
“I do know that ceiling height requirements are getting higher and higher,” he added, specifying 28 to 30 feet.
Existing businesses a key
While saying that recruitment of outside industry must be part of the “regular diet” of every county, the official with the state Economic Development Partnership says companies already here should not be overlooked.
“If we do a good job taking care of existing companies,” Chung said, it tends to be more productive than seeking ones from afar. This includes working to make sure any expansions they undertake occur locally rather than elsewhere.
This also can help lure new companies, he said.
One of the first things industrial officials do when weighing whether to establish a plant in some community is ask those already there what they think about their local government, labor availability and other resources.
“Your existing companies are your best ambassadors,” Chung said.
He also said that foreign markets, including the Middle East and Africa, are largely overlooked and represent a potential growth area for businesses in North Carolina.
By the same token, recent changes in Washington are encouraging more foreign investment by companies in the U.S. market, who are seeking to build plants making products “they can sell in the U.S.” easier, Chung said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.