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Edgecombe County

Vigorously Pursuing Economic Growth

By Mary Elle Hunter

      Once known primarily as a rural area dependent on tobacco and textiles, Edgecombe County has faced its share of economic woes in recent years. However, a significant turnaround has been realized with new industries taking the place of closed plants. Centered between Raleigh and the coast, the county has approximately 56,000 residents and is composed of ten cities and towns. Historic Tarboro is the county seat, and home to the Tarboro Commerce Center, Tarboro Industrial Park, and Coastal Carolina Research, Inc. Sam Noble, Tarboro Town Manager, notes that Tarboro enjoys the lowest tax rate in the area with no tax increase in over 17 years.

      Behind the upsurge in industrial activity is the Carolinas Gateway Partnership, which covers the Rocky Mount metropolitan area with two hundred private sector investors and five public sponsors, including Edgecombe County, with the partnership acting as the economic development department for the county. According to John Gessaman, President and CEO of the Partnership, one of the most encouraging developments has been the change in the employment picture. For instance, Edgecombe County's unemployment rate of 12% in 2002 has dropped to 7.1 %.

      While this is still too high, Gessaman says, it is a significant reduction, and it has come down because of the diversity of companies we have been able to attract. Modest growth in the Edgecombe County labor force has been produced, with the result that we now have more people working than in the past several years.

      The variety of companies represented in Edgecombe County range from Keihin Carolina System Technology, a manufacturer of auto parts, to Blue Hawaiian Fiberglass Pools, to Superior Essex Communications, and Nomaco. And one of the largest employers in the county is the Sara Lee Corporation.

      The former Glenoit Fabrics which announced plans to close its facility in 2005 and move to China has been replaced by Tarboro Textiles, owned and managed by a former Glenoit employee, with experienced former long-time Glenoit employees making up the work force.

      John Gessaman says that the main effort in Edgecombe County has been to prepare sites for technology-based industries. In addition to the Tarboro Commerce Center, he points to the Kingsboro Industrial area, where QVC has a distribution center for its home shopping network. QVC, which began operations in Edgecombe County with a small number of employees in 1999, has expanded its facilities and its work force substantially, becoming a major employer in the area. Adjacent to the QVC location is Kanban, a logistics provider with a designated foreign trade zone at their location.

  Headway Corporate Resources is in the process of creating more than one hundred new jobs at a national recruitment center in Tarboro. In making the announcement about the planned center, Headway CEO and President Jean-Pierre Sakey commented, The clear partnership between government, business and education sectors in developing knowledgeable workers was central in our decision-making process.

      Edgecombe Community College's role in offering training programs for businesses in the area has been an important drawing card. John Gessaman calls the college one of the key advantages the county enjoys.

      Another facet in the educational overview is the Gateway Technology Center that opened last year. It is an effort to build upon what we see as the populating of the area with technology-led businesses, John Gessaman observes. The Center's purpose is to extend the benefits of a university education to the local area, producing graduates with degrees in engineering and technical professions. Partners in the Center are North Carolina State University and East Carolina University, along with North Carolina Wesleyan University, on whose campus the Center is located.

      Supplementing the on-site classes beyond the community college level given by the three universities, the Center has distance learning resources as well as offering state-of-the-art video conferencing capabilities. High-speed internet access is provided through the presence of Embarq, another major employer in Edgecombe County.

      An unusual geographic feature of Rocky Mount splits the city into an area covered by two counties - Edgecombe and Nash. The Rocky Mount Chamber of Commerce concentrates on attracting small business firms and retail establishments into the eastern (Edgecombe) part of the city through the energetic efforts of Alan Matthews, Director of Business Recruitment. Through a series of weekly meetings with Carolinas Gateway Partnership, the two organizations stay in close contact, working together, sharing ideas and exploring ways to assist each other in their mutual quest to create jobs and increase the tax base of the community.

      Alan Matthews is currently working on the development of a retail center on the east side of town, called Crossing at 64. The plan for the 85-acre project is being directed by the Rocky Mount-Edgecombe Community Development Corp, and the present focus is on securing an anchor tenant for the center.

      Matthews says that the east side of Rocky Mount represents 20% of the city limits, but yet has only 3% of the retail space, making the area truly an underserved market with significant potential. The development of the center will create approximately 300 additional jobs and represent a capital investment of more than $6 million.

      Within the last few years, the Chamber acted as a catalyst to arrange for Edgecombe Community College to become an anchor tenant, occupying three floors in the old Peoples Bank building. The structure that had stood empty for over twenty years and was in a dilapidated state was purchased in 2003 by Self-Help Credit from Durham The transformation into a vibrant enterprise now incorporates the Golden Leaf Foundation as an additional tenant.

      Self-Help Credit was so pleased with that project that they have purchased another old building on the Edgecombe side of town - formerly the Rocky Mount post office, and we are currently working with them to identify a tenant for that location, Matthews relates. Other businesses making a recent capital investment in new or expanded facilities in the eastern section of the city include Eckerd's, Hess, Southern Bank, Advanced Auto, Family Dollar, and Almand's Drug.

      As Director of Business Recruitment, Alan Matthews has been monitoring and measuring retail sales in the Rocky Mount area for the last eight years. His calculations, based on figures compiled by the North Carolina Department of Revenue, indicate that Edgecombe had a 77 million dollar increase in retail sales from 2000 to 2005, and its retail sales grew 11.2% from 2005 to 2006.

      Tourism is another factor that has produced an upswing in revenues. Matthews points to the prime location of Rocky Mount, situated on I-95, linking the heavily populated northeast and Florida, and on the east-west four-laned corridor of US 64. Even if someone is just spending the night, they still patronize our restaurants and shops.

      Roberta Cashwell, the president of the Tarboro-Edgecombe Chamber of Commerce, states that according to the latest figures available, domestic tourism in Edgecombe County generated an economic impact of $44.25 million, or an 11.7% increase over the previous year, with travel generating about a $7 million payroll.

      With the concerted efforts of the Rocky Mount Chamber of Commerce and the Tarboro-Edgecombe Chamber of Commerce to draw small business and retail facilities to the area, complemented by the work of the Carolinas Gateway Partnership in attracting industry, sustained economic growth in Edgecombe County has become an obtainable goal.

Reprinted from Carolina Business online.

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