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Lee County; The Southern Base Of The Research Triangle Region

 By Mary Elle Hunter

      The 12th smallest county in North Carolina is one of the most productive in terms of manufacturing, with upwards of 38% of the jobs in the county's employment base absorbed by the manufacturing sector.   Lee County is comprised of just 259 square miles, but it also has been one of the fastest growing counties in the state, posting an average 2% increase in population annually.

      Sandwiched between the thirteen-county Research Triangle region to the north and the Fayetteville area with Fort Bragg to the south, location is an important factor in the county's attracting and maintaining its manufacturing base.  Bob Heuts, director of The Lee County Economic Development Corp., points to the variety of items produced in the county, Everything from the faucets in your home to the bricks in your house to the cloth for the clothing you are wearing can come from Lee County.

      The county is filled with major manufacturers.  The Lee County Industrial Park (LCIP) in the northern area houses Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, Caterpillar Industrial, GKN Driveline, maker of vehicle parts, and a number of smaller industries.  Wyeth, which produces pediatric vaccines, over the last four years invested $250 million and brought 1,000 jobs to the area.  Caterpillar, and ancillary companies, have invested $10 million during the same period.

      The southern corner of Lee County is home to the 28-building campus of Static Control Components and its estimated 1,400 employees.  The company began as an entrepreneurial start-up, operating out of a basement workshop several years ago.  Now a worldwide leader in its field, Static manufactures toner cartridge components, electrical testing tools, and products to protect sensitive electrical parts from moisture and static with a distribution system encompassing 163 countries.

      To the east, a one million square foot Coty plant, producing fragrances and skin care products, is located.  In the same general area is a Tyson foods operation, turning out taco shells for Taco Bell restaurants, and Moen, maker of innovative bath and shower systems.

      Companies that have invested millions of dollars in expansions to their Lee County operations since 2004 include Frontier Spinning Mills, which opened as a small company in 1996, Hydratube, 3M, Pentair, Challenge Printing Company, and Lee Brick and Tile.  Together with General Shale, Lee Brick and Tile continue the tradition which describes the county as one of the leading brick manufacturing areas in the United States.

      Although the brick business is very slow right now, Bob Heuts comments, Lee County is still very much in the brick manufacturing business.  Noting that there is a brick plant listed for sale on the website of the Lee Economic Development Corp, he says that the property is an older facility with a minimal value, and new owners of the site would in all likelihood tear it down and use the land for other purposes.

      The trend for the expansions and the additions in the manufacturing sector is away from worker-intensive operations, and more focused on capital intensive processes, Bob Heuts observes.  It is the only way that U. S. companies can compete in a global economy.  The trend is true not only in Lee County, but across the state and the nation.  Companies have invested heavily in cutting edge methods, with machinery based on updated technology, even some of them using robotics.  Or course, that has meant a decrease in the number of low-skilled jobs, but the jobs that remain or are created are typically better paying.

      Referring to the Research Triangle Regional Partnership of which Lee County is a member, Bob Heuts mentions, We couldn't do it without them.  We can't be in all the places across the country and the world, but they can and do represent us at trade shows and consultant's visits.  Naturally, we try to participate in some of the shows, but we value their support.  We get clients through their marketing efforts on our behalf.

      Bob Heuts also believes that the pro-business attitude of the county and municipal officials is another significant reason that the economic development of Lee County has been successful.  The Economic Development Corp. is a publicly funded organization, with 66% of the budget coming from the county, and the balance from the city of Sanford, the county seat, and the town of Broadway. 

      The collective position of wanting to see good jobs created and investment added to our county tax base is a key factor to our being able to continue to provide services for our growing population.  If we aren't all of one mind in terms of what we have to offer here in Lee County, and without our mutually-held feelings supporting new growth, we couldn't remain in business.

      One of the significant benefits to new and expanding business is a well-trained workforce. Central Carolina Community College provides three state-supported training programs which have been used by the majority of companies in the area.  Dr. T. Eston Marchant, president of the college, outlined the role of the college in economic development recently. 

      We are the front door for economic opportunity in the community, the college for people to gain skills in technology and other vocational training or prepare for university transfer. It is vital for a community college to play that role and play it well.

      Another important advantage that maximizes Lee County's accomplishments in economic development is the Sanford-Lee County Regional Airport.  Since opening in its present location late in 2000, the airport has made an impact on aviation in the Research Triangle Region.

      Designated as a reliever for Raleigh-Durham International, it is located on more than 700 acres just off U.S.1, about 20 miles from Cary along a four-lane stretch of highway.  It serves corporate pilots to and from the manufacturing base in Sanford, as well as Triangle-area pilots seeking an easier, less-crowded alternative to RDU.    

      Sanford-Lee County Regional Airport, Bob Heuts explains, is the third largest public general aviation airport in the state with 1000 aircraft based on its field, and it hosts nine on-site businesses and generates an annual economic impact of $280 million.  At a meeting earlier this year with the state's aeronautics council, the airport's long range expansion plans were the topic of discussion.

      The airport's capital improvement plan includes adding more hangars, extending its runway, and adding a 20-acre corporate park designed for companies in the aviation industry.

      The runway addition would create a 8,500 foot strip, allowing larger aircraft to land safely, although its present 6,500 foot length already eclipses what is currently available at most general aviation airports.

      Bill Williams, director of the North Carolina Department of Transportation's Division of Aviation, sees a bright future for the local airport.  Citing its location near the state capital, world-class universities and Raleigh's proposed I-540 Outer Loop, Williams sees continued growth ahead. It will become one of the more significant airports over the next few years.

      Another plus for the Lee County Economic Development Corp. is their meaningful relationships with the local Chamber of Commerce and the other private boards and committees that make up the core of the business community.  If there is something going on in downtown Sanford, we definitely want to be a part of it, Bob Heuts stresses,  so that we can include it in our sales presentations to prospective industries. 

      Speaking about the current national economic downturn, he comments We have seen our unemployment rate shoot up from 4-5% several months ago to 8.2%, and I predict that it may go higher even yet. It is a sign of the times.  All of the companies are so far holding on as best they can to sustain their business during this difficult period.  The unemployment picture affects the manufacturing as well as the retail segment of our Lee County economy.  Most of the companies I have talked with have scaled back to their core workers, and are trying to position themselves for rightsizing.  During the downturn they are not producing as much and are taking a sharp look at their processes, operating as lean as they can.

      Bob Heuts believes that Lee County has been very fortunate in the past, and it is a positive testimony to all the organizations, public and private, working together and understanding what needs to happen in the community at large to continue to move forward.  When it comes time to talk to a prospective client, any minor disagreements are shelved, and everybody's on the same page.  We all want good things to happen here in Lee County.

Reprinted from Carolina Business online.

 

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