02/22/08 — Wayne should benefit from 5-county alliance

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Wayne should benefit from 5-county alliance

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on February 22, 2008 1:57 PM

Wayne County Development Alliance President Joanna Thompson doesn't expect to see many -- if any -- immediate benefits from North Carolina Eastern Region's five-county BioEast Alliance. But she does believe that Wayne County's participation will pay dividends in the future.

"It's definitely going to be a long-term thing," she said Thursday after the region released a recently completed study describing the strengths and weaknesses of Edgecombe, Nash, Pitt, Wayne and Wilson counties and the strategies for addressing those.

Among the region's strengths, the report said, are its quality of life, the fact that it's a good area for biotech/life science needs, East Carolina University, its community colleges (where Wayne is beginning a agricultural-based life sciences program), its other four-year colleges, and its proximity to the Research Triangle Park.

Of those, Ms. Thompson explained, the only surprise was the amount of emphasis placed on the region's quality of life.

"When we're recruiting an industry, quality of life is usually at the bottom of the top 10 reasons," Ms. Thompson said. "But when you're talking biotech and life sciences, you have people with Ph.D.s and they want to know they are moving to an area with a high quality of life, so it's important."

She was not, however, at all surprised at the counties' weaknesses, which included the quality of kindergarten through twelfth-grade education, distances/transportation, the quantity of higher level/educated employees, and the number of buildings available for prospective clients.

Those, Ms. Thompson said, are many of the same complaints other industries have -- especially education.

The only one that perhaps sticks out as out-of-the-ordinary, she noted, is the focus on transportation issues -- not necessarily because of roads, but because of the region's distance from an international airport.

"They'll need to have researchers coming in from all over the world," she explained.

But, she continued, she feels like between the strategies laid out Thursday and the efforts already in progress -- contacting and repatriating biotech entrepreneurs from eastern North Carolina, creating virtual shell building programs, designing a Web site with international appeal, commissioning a labor market study and lobbying the legislature for assistance -- the region is moving in a good direction.

"Those all make sense to me," she said. "They're very doable."

Other recommended efforts focused on building up East Carolina University through the creation of an engineering school, research institutes and faculty recruitment.

Currently, the university is lagging hundreds of millions of dollars behind the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, N.C. State University, Duke University and Wake Forest University in terms of research funding -- in large part because the personnel and research foundation infrastructure don't exist yet.

Once they do, though, she explained, it will become a natural draw for industries, especially those being homegrown in eastern Carolina.

And so, Ms. Thompson argued, just because ECU and Pitt County may be at the center of this effort, Wayne County's involvement is still important.

"We're probably not going to have an institution the caliber of East Carolina in Wayne County in the foreseeable future," she said. "So our best bet is to position ourselves and align ourselves with ECU in terms of the life sciences. We have to make ECU the university of the region."

Already, she explained, of the area's 19 identified life science companies -- employing a total of 5,000 people -- 11 are in Pitt County. Only one, Goldsboro Milling, which works with artificial insemination and DNA, is in Wayne County.

"If I wanted to send out a brochure advertising Wayne County for biotech, I don't think it would have the same impact as the five-county region," she said. "It's not just Pitt this is supporting, it's all five counties.

"You have to really work hard at tearing down those geographic borders. It might be four of the first five companies don't come to Wayne, but that fifth one might, and that'd make it all worth it."

Besides, she explained, what Wayne County is trying to capture is not necessarily the research and development components, but hopefully the results of that work.

"What we're looking at is the manufacturing and the distribution," she said.

And, added, Goldsboro City Manager Joe Huffman, who also attended Thursday's meeting, "when an industry gets started, it creates other industries" -- many of which he believes could come to Wayne.

"My thinking is that it's a good idea. I think there's definitely potential for a direct impact on Goldsboro," he said. "If anything it'll help us start thinking regionally (like in terms of expanding U.S. 13 between Goldsboro and Greenville)."

Eventually, Ms. Thompson continued, the goal is to create a biotech corridor between Wayne in the west and Carteret and Craven counties on the coast where the focus is on marine life science.