The Growing Heart of North Carolina

Harnett County, NC
Written by Samita Sarkar

Right in the heart of North Carolina lies Harnett County, one of the state’s fastest growing counties by population. Known for rural charm in a convenient location, there are a number of reasons why this central North Carolina community has seen a population boom over the years.
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“Harnett County combines rural beauty with proximity to urban areas to provide an optimal business climate for business and industry,” says Debbie Taylor, Marketing & Business Recruitment Manager at Harnett County Economic Development (HCED). “Harnett County is located within an hour of North Carolina’s capital city of Raleigh, the globally recognized Research Triangle Park and the U.S. Army’s largest installment, Fort Bragg. Affordable land served by excellent infrastructure, moderate tax rates, reasonably priced property and an available workforce are some of the finer attributes the county brings to the table.”

Harnett is located between Raleigh and Fayetteville, some of the state’s most central urban areas, just two hours away from the pristine beaches of the Atlantic coast. Within the county itself, there is an abundance of outdoor activities for adventurous residents to explore, which include The Cape Fear River (kayaking, canoeing, and rafting); Raven Rock State Park (miles of hiking and horseback trails, camping, picnic shelters, canoe and kayak access to Cape Fear); The 16-acre Cape Fear River Trail; The Dunn-Erwin Rail Trail (a 5-mile path that connects the two downtown areas); and a total of 10 existing parks in the county with another 14 others either under construction or proposed.

This is in addition to the museums, wetlands, and scenic farmlands that beautify the county throughout. Interestingly, Hartnett’s unique downtown cores are in the City of Dunn and the Town of Erwin, while the county seat is in Lillington. Overall, the Harnett community is rich in opportunities for growth in advanced and general manufacturing, distribution and logistics, health services, agriculture, and military support, offering residents and business owners a great place to both live and work.

Moreover, Harnett County offers access to regional and national markets via Interstate 95, Interstate 40, U.S. 421 and U.S. 401. Raleigh-Durham International Airport is less than 45 minutes away, and Fayetteville Regional Airport is less than 30 minutes away. Harnett Regional Jetport (HRJ) is located in the center of the county and has an asphalt runway of 5,000 feet. At such a desirable location, it is no wonder that Harnett County has experienced exceptional growth over the past two decades. From a population of 68,000 in 1990 to an estimate of 125,717 in 2014, Harnett grew by 85 percent. It is currently estimated at approximately 132,000 residents.

With the growth the county has seen over the last couple of years, there has been a considerable increase in housing construction. Even so, housing remains very affordable with the median home price at $158,000. A diverse range of housing options are available, including new subdivisions, historic homes, horse farms, and even over-55 dwellings. But with a median age of 34, the county is certainly a young one.

Interestingly, this young population is part of what has been drawing business into Harnett County. Harnett residents are skilled workers, and Taylor informs us that the community is close to higher learning institutions while also having a number of programs that are designed to support the workforce.

Firstly, Harnett County is home to Campbell University, a private Christian university of over 6,300 that offers several undergraduate and graduate degrees. Campbell U boasts a top-tier law school; the only osteopathic medical school in North Carolina; the state’s first dual physician assistant/public health degree; its first undergraduate degree in homeland security; one of only 20 PGA golf management university programs in the U.S.; and the only trust and wealth management undergrad program in the country. It is known throughout the South as one of the best regional universities, and a private university of choice. Internships with Campbell University’s schools of business, engineering, osteopathic medicine and others are available to expose college students to opportunities and retain their talent in Harnett County.

As mentioned, Harnett County is also just a stone’s throw from North Carolina’s famed Research Triangle. Often nicknamed “The Triangle” and known officially as the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill combined statistical area, its three points are the university towns of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. Each town contains a major research university, including North Carolina State University, Duke University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The region also contains the Research Triangle Park, known for hosting numerous tech businesses drawn to the area’s research facilities and educated workforce. That same workforce is in turn partly responsible for Harnett’s population growth, as they move south and choose to commute that short distance to work due to the reasonable prices and high standard of living available in the county.

Additionally, the burgeoning workforce in the growing County of Harnett is bolstered by high school programs as well as partnership programs between the county and the Central Carolina Community College (CCCC). Harnett County Schools, a pre-K-to-12 public school district, has created Public Safety Academies for students interested in firefighting, EMT, and/or law and justice careers. Meanwhile, Harnett Advanced Manufacturing Academy is a high school program that allows participants to earn credits toward a CCCC computer-integrated technology program or welding program. Harnett County Schools also works in partnership with CCCC to give students the opportunity to fast-track a career in healthcare through the Harnett Health Sciences Academy.

The county additionally has a private, non-profit Harnett County Business Education Partnership, which is made up of business leaders, educators, parents, and student representatives, dedicated to helping students make informed educational and career decisions. Its programs include job shadowing, community-based learning (wherein teachers invite their class to observe a real work environment at a Harnett place of business), career awareness fairs, and senior scholarships.

For new businesses interested in taking advantage of Harnett’s ever-expanding talent pool, Harnett County Economic Development is there to facilitate that connection. Angie Stewart, the Industry & Product Development Manager, serves as a liaison between the county’s existing business and industry communities. The HCED can help with finding an ideal business location, hiring, training, and securing additional incentives for businesses that meet certain criteria.

“Through a structured visitation program, HCED stays in contact with existing employers and works collaboratively with partner organizations and educational institutions to provide valuable resources to existing and new businesses and industries,” Taylor adds.

Of course, though there are numerous other opportunities available, manufacturing continues to be one of Harnett County’s largest employment sectors. This diverse sector includes the North American headquarters of Boon Edam, Gray Flex Systems, and Harnett’s homegrown Godwin Group. As a matter of fact, the Godwin Group and its affiliated companies make up the largest privately (family) owned and operated truck equipment manufacturer in the United States. The Godwin Group is located in Harnett’s largest city, Dunn, which is also known as the “truck body capital of the world.” Other significant employers include many smaller support metal manufacturing operations, and the growing transportation sector. Food Lion Distribution Center has just celebrated 30 years in Harnett County, and a 1.5 million square-foot Rooms To Go distribution center has recently opened in the county.

To accommodate new developments during this exciting time, Harnett County created a 2015 Comprehensive Growth Plan with a four-pronged economic development approach to aggressively market its assets to businesses (proximity to The Research Triangle and Fort Bragg, highway access, CCCC programs, incentives and more), support the retention and expansion of existing industry, build a better overall economic product, and build organizational capacity.

“But because of the tremendous growth in the northwest area of the county, another study is underway,” Taylor reveals.

At the moment, Harnett County is creating a 2018 North West Area Plan. The plan will look at the area between NC 210 to the east, the Cape Fear River to the south and the Wake County line to the north. The northwest population has grown by 56 percent since the year 2000. Though it remains primarily rural, it is increasingly experiencing growth pressure expanding from Fuquay-Varina and Wake County.

According to the county website, “The planning effort will build on policies in the 2015 Comprehensive Growth Plan and focus on balancing the rural character of the area while accommodating growth and determining infrastructure needs. The outcome of this plan will be a revised land use plan to guide rezonings and recommendations that will guide public and private investment decisions for years to come.”

There seems to be no better time than the present to capture all of the benefits that a place like Harnett County can provide. Businesses interested in writing their own story are welcome to visit www.harnettedc.org.

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