09/21/08 — Alliance chief hints at news for Mount Olive

View Archive

Alliance chief hints at news for Mount Olive

By Steve Herring
Published in News on September 21, 2008 7:27 AM

MOUNT OLIVE -- A lack of citizen input can have a crippling affect on industrial recruitment, Wayne County Development Alliance President Joanna Thompson told an early-morning crowd gathered for the Mount Olive Area Chamber of Commerce's Business at Breakfast session Thursday at Mount Olive College.

That, she said, has not been the case in Mount Olive. She added she often uses Mount Olive as an example of community involvement.

"I know people probably are getting sick of hearing about Mount Olive," she said. "They say 'look at all the stuff you have done for Mount Olive.' I say look at what Mount Olive has done for Mount Olive. We have just been there along with them to assist them."

Mount Olive has suffered some recent setbacks -- the closing last week of Hilex Poly and IMPulse NC's sale of part of its operation to Reuel of Goldsboro.

Hilex Poly made plastic bags for the grocery industry.

Ms. Thompson said she had found out about the closing just 24 hours before it happened.

She said the closing was not a matter of the workforce not doing its job or because of poor management. Ms. Thompson said it was her understanding that the Mount Olive plant was the top producer in the company. However, some of the other plants are located closer to company clients.

Ms. Thompson said she had been surprised by the move since the company had just come out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy and had regained its Wal-Mart contract.

The decision to close, she said, was made by the bankers who owned the company and not by operations personnel.

Ms. Thompson said 10 county industries have lined up to conduct a job fair at the plant.

"There are some opportunities for these employees out there," she said.

Ms. Thompson said several projects specific to Mount Olive are under way, but that she could not provide much information.

"But I hope that by the end of the year we have something to offset the (Hilex Poly) closing," she said.

Ms. Thompson said the alliance has undertaken the challenge of a "Northern Wayne Initiative" in order "to really help the northern end of the county."

A community assessment was made of that area's strengths and weaknesses looking at the workforce, geography, infrastructure and other areas.

A task force was formed and a list of 12 recommendations generated by the assessment was narrowed to four with the top one being an industrial site.

"It can't be, as you all know, just the town manager and the mayor and a couple of staff doing the work," she said.

Citizens need to step up as well, she said.

"They are hungry for some industry," she said. "What we tried to explain is that you just can't flop an industry down. It is about capacity."

An area needs the infrastructure, natural gas, electricity, water and sewer capacity.

"Everybody thought I-795 was going to be a magic bullet for northern Wayne County," she said. "It is great, but just because you have an interstate of that quality in your community does not mean you are ready that day."

Ms. Thompson said thatwhen she first began working with economic development in the county 15 years ago there were bean fields all over the county that could be shown as sites. Also, the county had early contact with potential clients.

That, she said, is no longer the case.

Today, the county rarely sees the client until it finds out the county is among the final two or three sites being considered, Ms. Thompson said.

"I'd say 80 percent of our projects are driven by site consultants," she said.

Ms. Thompson said companies also want certified sites that have undergone testing. They want maps, aerial photos, water tests and other information, she said.

"Clients are more savvy and demanding," she said. "Most clients won't even consider a site if it is not certified."

Certifying a site is a demanding and time-consuming process," she said.

Companies also are interested in transportation costs. She cited Wayne County government's shift to a four-day week as an example. The new schedule is designed to save energy cost for the county and commuter costs for employees.

It used to be that when a company looked at an area, officials wanted to know about the workforce within a 30-mile radius. Today, it is a 10-mile radius.

"People can't afford to commute for the salary," she said.

Mount Olive Town Manager Charles Brown asked Ms. Thompson about any trends she has witnessed as result of the economic downturn.

"We have seen a decline in the number of projects," she said.

However, the projects have grown in scale, she said.

Ms. Thompson said there are several other trends, not necessarily associated with the downturn.

One is a repatriation of jobs back to the U.S. that were being sent to China or Mexico. Ms. Thompson said she hopes the trend continues.

Also, more businesses and industries are looking at or already have become tobacco-free workplaces.

Dress codes are another trend. How employees dress is not only an appearance issue, but also of safety, she said.

Ms. Thompson said the alliance is a public-private venture. Wayne County provides half of the organization's funding -- monies used for operations including salaries and administrative costs.

The remainder comes from private sources generated by the alliance's Impact Wayne campaign private sector and municipal fundraising arm.

"Those monies are completely separate, they are not for operations," she said. "They are set aside for special purposes only."

Impact Wayne funds are used in four areas:

-- Extra-ordinary marketing. Ms. Thompson said that means marketing beyond the "small amount" in the operational budget.

-- Product development. "This is basically acquiring sites for future development or construction of buildings or shell buildings," she said.

-- Project assistance. "That is a real nice way of saying incentives," she said. "Most of our projects do come with some kind of need for some kind of support. In addition, most state grants require a local match and sometimes it is our burden to help with that match."

-- Long-term investments. "That is just to keep the money and try to invest in different areas and help that money grow."

Ms. Thompson called 2007 "a big year" for Wayne County with the expansion at Reuel that added 50 jobs and amounted to about a $5 million investment.

"Also in 2007 was our AT&T announcement," she said. "That is great. It is right there in the Mar-Mac area, so it is pulling folks from all over."

She said a grand opening is being planned in the near future.

Ms. Thompson told the audience he wanted them to know that the AT&T call center did not open at 8 a.m. so they shouldn't be concerned if they drive by and don't see any activity. The company works with technical support calls so most of the work is done later in the day, she said.

AAR Manufacturing officials announced in 2006 that the company would create 135 jobs. In 2007, they announced additional job growth to go up to 500 jobs or more.

"It is one thing to get them here, but you have to get them here and help them grow," she said. "And we are continuing to do that and that is happening all across the county."