As the economy continues to fluctuate both nationally and worldwide, and businesses flourish or flounder, the Robeson County Office of Economic Development strives daily to not only help draw new businesses and industries to the area, but ensure their ongoing success and growth for decades to come.
“The county runs its economic development through a centralized office, and my job is to encourage new growth perspectives and prospects from various types of businesses and industry,” says Channing Jones, Executive Director for Economic Development. “I mainly focus on large industrial manufacturing clients; however, I do branch out to some large commercial client developments as well.”
For new clients coming to the region, Jones works as a facilitator of the existing assets, articulating those assets to companies as of way of attracting them, offering marketing efforts, and making sure Robeson’s attributes — matters considered positive by businesses in the industry — are clearly laid out to ensure good partnerships are created.
“Within that business development realm, the Robeson County Economic Development office acts as a mediator and facilitator between the county, the client and the state of North Carolina, and so part of my responsibilities is understanding the roles that North Carolina Department of Commerce has at the state level,” says Jones. “Also, working with the Economic Development Partnership of NC (public/private partnership) that currently houses our business retention and our business development. Regional partners such as the NC Southeast are extremely beneficial in business recruitment.”
North Carolina has developed partnerships that help facilitate new growth into the state, and Jones works with agencies to build good business practices and encourage business development within the County and State.
“Another part as important if not more important, is business retention,” he says. “My office has the responsibility of staying in contact with existing business and understanding their needs, ensuring there are resources we can bring to bear, when our existing industries need those resources.” As the businesses continue to grow, Jones also acts as mediator between the company and the state for any available incentives at the local and state government level such as industrial development, infrastructure, capital and investment credit for machinery and equipment, or training funds.
“If you’re creating jobs as an existing business, if you’re growing your business, NC incentivizes those companies with grants that can have infrastructure implications, education from local college and university systems, direct investment into the project, and capital investment into the buildings.”
Robeson County continues to grow and diversify economically despite being affected by not one but two major hurricanes in the past four years – Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, and Hurricane Florence in 2018 – both of which, while not particularly damaging in terms of wind, caused major havoc with rain and extensive flooding.
“Robeson County was probably one of the most adversely affected regions,” says Jones. “They were slow-moving storms, and they sat on us and just essentially dumped over 30 inches of rain in each event. It was just devastating.”
The storms affected homes and people in the area, but also had a tremendous effect on commerce. The Interstate 95 was completely shut down in both events for weeks, playing havoc on companies’ abilities to distribute goods and services, and employees in many cases couldn’t get to work because of flooding.
Robeson County has rebounded, however, and a strong national economy has helped the manufacturing community stay on top. Jones’ current project list includes six manufacturers today who are in growth mode, projecting net hires and multi-million dollar investments for their companies.
“That goes to the strength of those companies and the workforce that Robeson County provides,” says Jones. “If there’s one strength to our county, it’s our people. They’re very resilient and they’re very hardworking. Because of that, our companies continue to flourish… the number one challenge for all economic development is workforce.”
Finding and retaining good, qualified people to produce the work that companies need them to do to be successful is a challenge, says Jones. “We’re fortunate in Robeson County to have a good and strong workforce, and that’s evidenced with the companies we have here,” says Jones, who stresses that each one of the companies housed in Robeson will tell you it’s the people they have that make them successful.
This success spans several different sectors, and the county has a large presence in the food manufacturing and processing industries, the largest chicken processing plant in the country, successful agriculture businesses and Campbell Soup’s most efficient facility in the country. “We have a lot to be proud of,” says Jones. “Robeson County is very rural, with its roots in agriculture. We are today and have always been a strong agricultural community. We grow a lot of soybean and corn and those types of products, but we also have a large presence in the poultry and swine industry.”
As the country transitioned out of agriculture in the fifties and sixties, the seventies saw an influx of textile production in the area, which changed once again with NAFTA, when many companies outsourced for cheap labor. Today, while Robeson still embraces food processing, advanced manufacturing, textiles and agriculture, alternative agriculture products are now making an appearance. Bio-Energy companies are investing and planning for the future.
This year brings a company that compresses woody biomass into a cleaner, more ecologically beneficial way to create energy, and a company taking byproducts from poultry and swine farms and converting that into methane to be put back into natural gas lines as a bio-fuel. Other alternative businesses include timber applications and the hemp industry, either for CBD oil production or hemp fiber.
“These are the types of innovative businesses that are congregating in these rural areas that are creating good jobs and substantial investments,” says Jones. “But the challenge that all of these companies have across the state and the nation, is workforce. As a country we need to do a better job of sharing with young people the advantages that lie in manufacturing. There are some very good jobs that produce fantastic wages with good benefits. That message has gotten diluted somewhat over the years, and it’s not reaching the target audience that it should.”
He says past stigma of depicting factories as dirty and dangerous – or at risk of outsourcing – has played a role in discouraging young people from entering the manufacturing world as a career. Today, he says, the opposite is true, with clean, bright and technically challenging jobs available, requiring a higher skill set, critical thinking, and the ability to understand the critical processes that particular company is utilizing so they can troubleshoot on the line.
“I personally don’t believe a country can build wealth without manufacturing,” says Jones. “I don’t know how you continually base our economy on the service industry without building or making something. I’m hopeful that the manufacturing base in the country will continue to be strong.”
Robeson County’s wide and varied array of assets also plays a huge role in attracting and keeping businesses – the geographically largest county in North Carolina boasts a robust infrastructure, affordable property, with water and sewer access and several choices of energy and utility companies. Other resources includes one of the largest reservoirs on the East Coast, a logistical interstate system to facilitate getting goods and services out to customers, and close proximity to large urban centers like Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro, and Winston Salem. They’re an hour from the coast, and two hours from the mountains. Housing both Robeson Community College and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, a public university, the county constantly engages educational partners to coordinate and partner with businesses and industries to provide the workforce and product development needed.
“We’re a rural community, and one of the largest challenges that face our state is this rural/urban divide,” says Jones. “So many jobs are going into the urban centers that we’re losing a lot of good talent in the rural areas because of the attraction of the large cities. We want to make sure that our rural areas stay strong, and we want to make sure they’re looked at by business and industry as a good investment. And to do that, it all revolves around continuing to strengthen our workforce. Our people make the difference every time!”
This is evidenced by Robeson County ranking number one in the nation for its Career Readiness Certification, an assessment-based credential giving employers and potential employees a uniform measure of key workplace skills.
Jones is clearly proud of Robeson County and all it has to offer, from natural resources to human resources. “It’s a lot of fun,” he says of his job. “I meet a lot of new people and build relationships. North Carolina is just a fantastic state, strong and healthy, with the lowest corporate tax rate of any state in the country. A lot of businesses are going to naturally want to come here because of our business-friendly environment!”