02/25/05 — Hustling new industry is a quiet job

View Archive

Hustling new industry is a quiet job

By Matt Shaw
Published in News on February 25, 2005 1:49 PM

Did you hear about the Fortune 500 companies that have been in to look at Wayne County, that have toured our shell buildings and checked out the work force?

No, and you probably won't. Mum's more than the word for economic developers. It is a way of life.

"Before I got this job, I was never good at keeping secrets," said Joanna Thompson, president of the Economic Development Commis-sion.

But the slip of a lip can sink a business deal, she said recently.

When industrialists ask, either directly or through the N.C. Department of Commerce, for information on available land or factories, they expect their inquiries to be handled as confidentially as possible.

They have their reasons, she said. A company may not be ready to announce expansion or relocation for fear of unnecessarily alarming its current employees. It may not want its competitors to know its plans. An industry may need to determine quietly if it can resolve worker training, environmental or other issues that could cripple a new plant. If information leaks about some state grants, they can be lost.

This means that the commission holds the majority of its meetings behind closed doors, and officials occasionally have to swear the directors to secrecy. Reporters are not allowed into Ms. Thompson's briefings to the county commissioners.

That occasionally leads citizens to complain that the commission is piddling away the public's money.

"It can be very frustrating not to be able to tell what's going on behind the scenes," Ms. Thompson said.

For example, 31 companies sent teams to evaluate Wayne County in 2004, she said. Each of those client visits took the commission six to eight days for preparation and follow-up.

This year is shaping up to be even busier, with eight new companies showing interest already. Currently, the commission is courting more than 40 projects, plus it is assisting at least four local companies that are planning for expansions, Ms. Thompson said.

Most of these companies will ultimately decide on other communities or not to expand or relocate at all.

Often, the margin of defeat is razor-thin.

For example, Livedo, of Ehime, Japan, chose Wilson County over Wayne last fall for a $35 million plant that will make disposable medical supplies such as adult diapers and cleaning materials. That plant will employ about 70 people making more than $14 an hour.

The commission worked on the project for more than nine months, only to lose out to its neighbor because Wilson's shell building had 20,000 extra square feet, Ms. Thompson said. "It gave them a little bit more elbow room. We could have expanded our building, but they wanted to move in right away."

Wayne County will probably miss on another as-yet-unannounced project, she said. The company had originally looked at 27 N.C. counties, then 12, then nine and finally four. Wayne made the cut every time.

But it will likely lose out to a western N.C. county that has good access to Interstate 77. About 95 percent of that company's customers can receive shipments in one day from the I-77 corridor, as compared to 65 percent from Interstate 95, she said.

To reach the finalist stage, the commission hosted that company at least six times. One visit required the staff to set up three days of private interviews for the company's human resources people with local plant managers and personnel officers. The company did not want the commission staff present at the interviews, so it was three days of driving and waiting and driving and waiting, Ms. Thompson said.

But the commission is willing to trade 30 strikeouts for one home run.

Take, for example, Wayne County's one new industry announcement last year. The N.C. Grain Growers Cooperative announced in December that it intends to form a new company, Atlantic Bio-Energy LLC, which will build a plant that will make diesel fuel from soybeans.

Construction of that plant on Old Mount Olive Highway is scheduled to begin this spring. It would employ 25 people initially and another 20 later.

Once the plant is completed, it will be worth an estimated $45 million, which means it would pay nearly $300,000 in property taxes to the county. Plus it will create a market for the county's soybean growers.

The commission also made news last year as it helped engineer the sale of Goldsboro's APV Baker plant to Turkington Industries. It secured a $300,000 grant from the One N.C. Fund and $150,000 grants from both Wayne County and the city of Goldsboro.

Turkington promised to keep 120 jobs at the plant, but it has since added 31, Ms. Thompson said. "You don't know how close we came to losing that plant. It was a lot of work, but in the end, it was well worth it."

Many companies have hired additional employees or expanded in the last year, with the commission assisting several in various ways. Pate Dawson Co. hired 100 new people, Franklin Baking Co. hired 66, Anchor Coupling hired 33 and GAF Materials Corp. hired 14.

Southco. Distributing Co. moved into the old Barry plant, while W.P. Rose Co. bought the former Americal Building and added 17 jobs.

Even the county's one negative story in 2004 -- the near closure of Boling Furniture -- was eased earlier this year when the plant was sold to a new owner who hired back some of the idled workers.

Every year for 11 years, Wayne County has had a net gain of jobs in the manufacturing, wholesale and distribution sectors, Ms. Thompson said. Few eastern North Carolina counties, if any, can match that record, she said.

"All around us, there have been huge amounts of layoffs, but we've been somewhat protected," she said.

For Wayne County, silence has been golden.