04/13/08 — DuPont expansion in Kinston could help region

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DuPont expansion in Kinston could help region

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 13, 2008 2:00 AM

As county officials and economic developers across eastern North Carolina look for ways to grow and attract new industrial opportunities in fields like bio-technology, one company is, in a sense, returning to its roots.

After 55 years in Kinston and a downsizing from a peak of 3,600 employees in 1975 to 33 by 2004, DuPont is making a comeback -- and is doing so with new technologies in the bio-tech field.

In the midst of a $47 million capital upgrade project, the company is looking to add about 66 new jobs through several phases of hiring. And with renovations expected to be complete by September, 33 of those positions are already filled, bringing the plant's total workforce up to more than 50.

Working in the Sorona plant, those employees are producing a bio-based "green" polymer used in various fabrics, but primarily in stain-proof home rugs and carpeting like those sold by Mohawk in stores such as Home Depot.

But, said Lenoir County Economic Development Executive Director Mark Pope, even though the new jobs are paying an average salary of about $57,000, these 60-some positions aren't the most exciting part of the announcement.

That, he said, would be what this expansion might mean for Kinston, Lenoir County and the surrounding region in the future -- especially given its past.

"They were the cornerstone of Kinston and Lenoir County," Pope said of DuPont. "They were the foundation of a lot of the growth we got in those days. We had a lot of communities pop up that were DuPont employees. They were the foundation of Lenoir County."

And so when the company began shutting down its yarn production lines, the layoffs reverberated throughout the community.

"That was a major impact," Pope said. "It was just the textile industry and those economic times, but that was a great shock.

"It hurt us greatly."

Now, though, with their own power plant and wastewater treatment facility on site, and more than 650 acres available for development, DuPont officials are hoping to reverse their Kinston fortunes.

"I've been in eastern North Carolina my whole life, so we hope it's the start of something exciting here," said Kinston plant manager Harold Thomas, a DuPont employee for 39 years. "There are a lot of good opportunities here."

And those opportunities, he explained, could involve either DuPont or another like-minded company, which could share the space just like in any other industrial-park-style complex.

They will not, however, provide the number of jobs seen in the past.

"We're not going to bring it back to 3,600 jobs. I wish we could, but we're not," Thomas said.

They could, though, help spur the creation beyond what has been planned.

"This opens the door for a lot of things," Pope said. "They (DuPont's corporate officials in town for the 55th anniversary at the end of March) were very impressed with what they saw and how they were received, so we're excited about this. I think we'll get in the line for some other projects. This could be a big impact for this region."

"The state of North Carolina is a good state for the bio-sciences," Thomas said. "Now the one thing eastern North Carolina can do to help DuPont and other companies going forward, is to have a workforce ready to go into these fields, because these are all pretty highly skilled jobs."