Northeast North Carolina is brimming with potential. The four county sub-region of Hertford County, Halifax County, Northampton County and Bertie Counties has all the pieces in place for economic success, from its ideal location and business-friendly attitude to its vast tracts of developable land and strong industrial history.
“Our four counties represent the industrial corridor of the northeast region,” says William S. Early, Executive Director of the Hertford County Economic Development Commission. “We share an industrial base and talent base in common between these four counties,” adds Northampton Economic Development Director Gary Brown. “We have a lot of common interests and a lot of common opportunities as well.”
The sub-region’s location is one of its greatest advantages. “We are roughly midpoint on the Atlantic coast and on I-95,” Mr. Brown points out. “We are midpoint for commerce, northbound and southbound.” In addition, the four-county area is nestled in the middle of four significant regional cities: Norfolk, VA, Richmond, VA, Greenville, NC, and Raleigh, NC. “We are midpoint between those urban centers and there is a lot of commercial activity that flows in and out of the region to each of those centers.” Over 122,000 people live in the region, 47,000 of whom are active members of the local workforce.
Local infrastructure is excellent, so goods and workers can easily move across the region. In addition to the interstate, rail service is readily available and the Chowan River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean, can handle barge transport. An abundant water supply and competitively priced natural gas and electric utilities round out the infrastructure advantages. Further improvements to infrastructure include the four-lane upgrading of US Highway 158 through Northampton County recently pledged by North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory.
The region’s location and natural resources have historically made it a center for agriculture and textiles. These industries have had their challenges over the years, however, Northeast North Carolina armed itself with a willingness to adjust with the times, retraining the local labor force, and recruiting new businesses to take advantage of the strong local work ethic.
“Our sub-region was able to pick up textiles as agriculture’s labor needs waned, providing new opportunities for local laborers,” Mr. Brown explains. “It was an industry that benefited from the manual labor that had been employed on the farm, [so that labor force] transitioned into the factory.”
Globalization eventually pushed textiles out of the region, and locals were left scrambling for jobs once more. “As the textile industry declined, we were again faced with the question of what’s next,” Mr. Brown recalls.
Undeterred, community leaders banded together to create a stronger future. They took a long-term perspective, setting the sub-region up for lasting success rather than trying to find a quick, temporary fix. Mr. Brown explains, “Economic development takes constant reinvention, constant attention to trends, constant attention to developing the capacity to do a lot of things – not just a narrow focus on what we anticipate may be the next company to move into the region.” In the 21st century, the real question to address is, “how do we compete globally?”
The region identified four manufacturing clusters with lasting promise: agriculture/biotech, food processing; renewable energy; and advanced manufacturing. These sectors are now booming and the sub-region has enjoyed remarkably high levels of employment for the last 15 years. “From 2000 to 2010 – a decade benchmarked on either end by recession – total private employment in the U.S. declined by 1.8 percent and total employment in the state declined by 4.4 percent,” Mr. Brown reports. “During that same period, Northampton County employment grew by 22.9 percent.” This upward trend continues.
The region’s pro-business leadership continues to work on developing a career-ready workforce by partnering with local colleges. “[We are] investing in our community colleges to skill up in anticipation of industrial recruitment opportunities that will continue to make us more competitive, more able to meet the needs of advanced technology industries and create an environment that is conducive to investment,” Mr. Brown shares. In addition, county leaders are committed to maintaining and expanding the local infrastructure, from roads and bridges to utilities and waterways.
Local government is always ready to lend a hand to any company considering moving into the area, says Bertie County Economic Development Director Steve Biggs. “We provide a supportive and pro-business climate that not only supports new business recruitment, but expansion of existing businesses as well.”
The sub-region’s livability also helps to attract new companies. “The quality of life here is excellent,” Mr. Early states. The area’s rural lifestyle makes the difference, he explains. “The quality of life is much more personal than what you would find in urban areas.” Vast tracts of developable land allow for privacy and affordable land ownership, as well as outdoor recreational opportunities such as fishing, hunting, and hiking. And, although the cost of living is low, the area still provides some of the amenities found in more urban areas. “I think a lot of times people have a certain perception of rural communities that is not always true and accurate,” Mr. Early remarks. “If you look at our successes and the resources and the assets that we have in our region, you will see that that stereotype does not necessarily fit us.” From quality healthcare to established arts councils and top-notch golf courses, the four county area balances rural living with the conveniences and entertainment options that residents want. “Importantly,” Mr. Early adds, “that quality of life includes the rivers and lakes of our region.”
Lake Gaston is arguably the region’s greatest recreational draw. In 1963, Virginia Electric Power built a dam on the Roanoke River to generate electricity for Dominion Resources, creating a 20,000-acre lake stretching 34 miles long and 1.5 miles wide. A fishing paradise, Lake Gaston is well stocked with striped bass, largemouth bass, crappie, sunfish and several types of catfish. The lake is ideal for boating, swimming, water skiing, jet skiing, and kayaking as well. Retirees as well as commuters to nearby urban centers have discovered the advantages of living on Lake Gaston and are moving into the many subdivisions that line the scenic waters. In addition to enjoying water sports, “they are finding that the quality of life here is very good because of housing prices, access to quality healthcare, and arts availability,” Mr. Early reports.
With so many regional assets, as well as a business friendly environment, the sub-region is expected to continue along an upward path. “I believe that we are positioned well to continue the growth that we have experienced in the past,” Mr. Early remarks. “Nucor Steel’s recent investments account for over $700 million,” he points out. “That kind of investment shows the confidence that [businesses] have in the region.” That confidence is also apparent by other corporate investors, including Georgia-Pacific Chemicals, Hampton Farms, Enviva, Avoca, Kapstone Paper & Packaging, Klausner Lumber, Lowes’ Home Improvement, Meherrin Agricultural & Chemical, PCB Piezotronics, Perdue, Reser’s Fine Foods, and West Fraser.
Companies reap the benefits of their location in the Northeast NC Region. “We are proud to be part of the business community in Hertford County,” comments Robert McCracken, Vice President and General Manager of Nucor Steel Hertford County. “The quality workforce and excellent business environment has allowed us to invest in and grow our steel business,” McCracken added. “As a result, Nucor Steel Hertford County has increased its product mix and drive for quality, and significantly contributed to Nucor Corporation’s bottom line.”
Halifax County Economic Development Commission Director Cathy Scott adds that the sub-region has “some very strong geographical and logistical advantages that will continue to support growth for the future. [We are] still an emerging region for industrial development and for renewable energy investments.” But through hard work, investment in infrastructure and shovel-ready industrial sites, along with perseverance and careful planning, the region has overcome its challenges to earn a leading place in North Carolina’s growing economy. Mr. Biggs points out that, “there is even greater opportunity for success in the future.”