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Winston-Salem trails other N.C. metros in attracting industry
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Winston-Salem trails other N.C. metros in attracting industry

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Winston-Salem and Forsyth County are in a dry spell when it comes to attracting and landing major economic-development projects from out-of-state corporations.

Despite the upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic, neighboring Triad counties have secured game-changing job and capital investment commitments during 2020.

Headlining projects include: United Parcel Services in Alamance and Guilford counties (combined 592 jobs, $316.4 million investment); Nestle Purina PetCare in Eden (300 jobs, $450 million); Ontex Group in Rockingham (403 jobs, $96 million); and Prepac Manufacturing in Whitsett (201 jobs, $27.1 million).

That's on top of Amazon's plans to have 1,000 full-time employees at its recently opened 1 million-square-foot fulfillment center on the Guilford County side of Kernersville, along with Triad distribution venues.

Meanwhile, the only 2020 recruitment success story for Forsyth is Canadian manufacturer Durisol Ltd. planning to spend $4.5 million to renovate a 51,728-square-foot building in Rural Hall.

Durisol committed to creating 46 full-time-equivalent jobs over five years at a production plant for noise-barrier products, such as those built next to major roadways.

The dichotomy is nothing new to Winston-Salem and Forsyth civic and economic officials.

Do officials spend the time and resources going after high-profile corporate relocations — selling the proposition of lower business costs here than in Charlotte or the Triangle area — knowing that the odds of success are slim competing against the state’s two dominant socioeconomic engines of Charlotte and the Triangle?

Most of the major economic projects that have come to the Triad this century — Dell Inc., Caterpillar Inc., FedEx Corp, Herbalife Nutrition Ltd., Honda Aircraft Co. — have tended to involve corporations preferring to be a big fish in a small pond, or getting a deal on a production facility that was too good to pass up. 

Or do the local recruiters play it safe by focusing on helping the companies already here grow, even if it means some of those employers are just moving from one facility to another with limited net gain of jobs for the community?

Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines said the Winston Salem economy "was on a major roll with net new job growth of 3.9% from 2017 to 2019."

"New jobs were fairly well disbursed through most economic sectors. I believe we are poised to resume that momentum.

"Our focus is on creating an environment for new business start-ups and business expansion," Joines said. "Typically, recruitment of new companies only makes up 10% of new job growth."

For the local community, "there are challenges and there are opportunities," said Mark Owens, who became president and chief executive of Greater Winston-Salem Inc. in April.

The agency represents the reuniting after 30 years of the corporate-recruitment arm of Winston-Salem Business Inc. with the existing business promoter of Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce.

Owens said he is confident that having a one-stop economic development group will allow Greater Winston-Salem "to boldly position ourselves for out-of-state projects as we continue to support existing companies."

State of the Economy 

The stark economic-development comparison was an unintended elephant in the room during a recent State of the Economy presentation, the first held under the Greater Winston-Salem branding.

The pandemic robbed the group of presenting before a typical audience of between 500 and 700 attendees. The event, postponed by 6½ months, was held virtually on Nov. 10.

Owens was joined in the nearly hourlong event by three panelists: Stan Kelly, president of Piedmont Triad Partnership; Chris Chung, chief executive of Economic Development Partnership; and Dariel Curren, executive vice president of Development Counsellors International.

Much of the conversation revolved around how the Triad economy and the Carolina Core initiative is performing, rather than specifically Winston-Salem and Forsyth. The lack of local projects to discuss was apparent.

Debuting to great fanfare in August 2018, the Carolina Core branding represents the latest in a long list of attempts over several decades at getting four distinctly different Triad communities — Winston-Salem, Greensboro, High Point and Burlington — to go beyond talking up economic regionalism to a full embrace.

It also brought in the Fayetteville area to expand the number of industrial megasites to four in its region that includes Piedmont Triad International Airport.

The panelists focused on efforts to position the Triad and the Carolina Core for more all-for-one, one-for-all success stories.

Curren's company specializes in economic-development marketing, public relations and travel marketing. She played a role in the development of Carolina Core and Greater Winston-Salem branding.

Curren said her firm's 2020 economic survey of corporate executives found that 55% are considering bringing back or expanding existing production and operations because of global economic uncertainties and U.S. trade policies under President Donald Trump.

Those same corporate executives expressed growing interest during the pandemic in medium-sized metros, suburban and rural areas, compared with large metros.

"This is good news for Greater Winston-Salem," Curren said. "This is a moment-in-time you really need to seize."

Owens agreed with the panelists' assessments that Winston-Salem and the region are poised to benefit from businesses' growing interest in extending the pandemic-compelled work-from-home trend.

"Growth potential is highest in the industries that Winston-Salem is best suited for, including biotechnology and life science, advanced manufacturing, food and beverage processing, and more.”

Local attractions

Kelly said the Triad and Carolina Core "don't preach quality of life from the mountaintop enough."

Kelly cited limited traffic congestion for work commutes, less urban sprawl, lower cost of living, higher education options and a workforce of more than 2.2 million within a 60-mile radius of Greensboro.

"It's crucial for us to strike at a moment of opportunity and really make a difference," Owens said.

Owens said the agency has responded to the pandemic by introducing digital advertising, a new website, data tools, and commercial real estate listings "that are designed to get the attention of businesses looking to locate in one of the best communities in the nation."

"It is incredibly important for Winston-Salem and Forsyth County to elevate our digital presence and lean on our partnerships with EDPNC and the Carolina Core to maximize our chances at success."

Laura Johnson Lee, who took over economic development responsibilities for Greater Winston-Salem in July, said "our strategy involves seeking new opportunities and working regionally for success.

"We’re collaborating with city and county partners to identify and market new industrial properties, including sites, spec buildings, Brownfield sites and more. Existing commercial and office space is available with more under construction.

“We’re experiencing traction in our recruitment efforts, with positive reception from national site consultants and current economic development clients considering Forsyth County."

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The last major corporate recruitment success came nearly eight years ago in December 2012 when then-Herbalife Ltd. pledged to create 498 jobs and spend more than $100 million on establishing its presence with the cavernous former Dell Inc. desktop-assembly plant.

Herbalife has well exceeded its economic commitment with at least 750 employees at its East Coast plant in Winston-Salem.

Forsyth has had more success in recent years in assisting employers to expand locally, such as Cook Medical at Whitaker Park (retain 650 jobs, add 50), National General Insurance Corp. (retain 1,245 jobs, add 625) and Lowe's Cos. Inc. (retain 110, add 20).

Owens said that while high-profile relocation projects tend to garner the bulk of attention, "more than 80% of new jobs come from existing businesses rather than relocation projects."

"Our major employers are likewise in industries that are primarily seeing resilience from the pandemic, in high-growth industries, and located in a business-friendly local economy that fosters their success."

Lacking infrastructure

Winston-Salem and Forsyth has been challenged for many years in lacking sizable speculative and vacant buildings, as well as shovel-ready land for development.

A limited supply of those infrastructure tools — outside uncommitted parts of the former Whitaker Park cigarette-manufacturing plant — continues to hamstring recruitment efforts.

“The current lack of sites and modern industrial building is one of biggest impediments to growth,” Joines said in June 2019.

Areas off the Northern Beltway could become more attractive as industrial-development sites similar to Union Cross Business Park off U.S. 311 and the Caterpillar Inc. and Herbalife manufacturing plants off I-40.

However, efforts to further expand downtown Winston-Salem's Innovation Quarter have been limited by the running out of buildings to benefit from historic preservation tax credits.

By comparison, there was land available for the UPS and Ontex projects, while the recently mothballed MillerCoors campus proved attractive to Purina PetCare officials willing to renovate and rehabilitate existing parts of the 1.3 million-square-foot production facilities.

"We have work to do, but I feel like we have the system and partners in place to be successful," Forsyth manager Dudley Watts said.

"We have a diverse portfolio of sites, land and commercial office space that’s suited to appeal to a broad range of incoming projects, and also offers our homegrown companies room to expand."

Watts cited that Greater Winston-Salem and Whitaker Park Development Authority "are working on a couple of projects interested in the 400,000-square-foot facility there which is currently leased by Hanesbrands."

"The 95,000-square-foot building, 605-12, has been part of many submissions, and is of interest to many as it has expansion potential and rail access."

'End of the beginning'

The State of the Economy panelists said the industry sectors most interested in moving forward with projections during and post-pandemic are biotechnology and life science, advanced manufacturing, food and beverage processing, transportation and logistics, and software and information technology.

All of those industry sectors "line up well" for Triad economic-recruitment efforts, Curren said.

"Workforce talent is still driving location decisions, along with available sites and buildings and a business-friendly government support."

Curren pitched that Winston-Salem is in "a sweet spot between these two supernovas of Charlotte and Raleigh and their hot job markets (having) lower housing costs and many, many amenities."

"But, you really need to elevate your jobs that are available.

"People want to know that if they are not working remotely, that they can have a job with a good company with benefits, and their partner could find work as well."

Curren said Greater Winston-Salem's marketing efforts should "inspire (skilled talent) to want to move to Winston-Salem and help it become 'an It city' ... held in the same breath" of Nashville, Austin, Texas and Denver.

Michael Walden, an economics professor at N.C. State University, questioned whether Winston-Salem and Forsyth County are "being outmatched by Charlotte to its south and Greensboro to its east."

"In the last decade, the county has been challenged by relocations and mergers — both shifting control to outside the area. Some companies may 'follow the herd to winners,' and, unfortunately, they may not consider Forsyth/Winston-Salem in this category.

"If this perspective is correct, the good news is it can be overcome with facts about the area's attractiveness and competitiveness," Walden said.

Walden cited Winston-Salem having "competitive costs, great access, a pleasing climate — especially the potential for easy escapes to the mountains during humid summers — and top-flight education and medical facilities."

"A new publicity campaign could work wonders," he said.

Bigger jobs goal

Kelly said leaders of the Carolina Core initiative may boost projections beyond creating 50,000 jobs over 20 years based on the more than 15,000 jobs established or pledged since its unveiling in August 2018.

"We're almost a third there (to 50,000)," Kelly said. "We're making good progress, and I bet we raise that goal in the months to years ahead."

Even though the Triad and Carolina Core regions continue to be overshadowed by Charlotte and the Triangle, Kelly considers it "a great gift" to be situated between the two economic engines.

"I often say the better they do, the better we're going to do," Kelly said.

Bottom line, Chung said, is that as long as North Carolina "is in the mix" with site selectors and projects, "we feel we will continue to put our communities into play for capital investment and job creation."

Chung said that a significant economic hurdle for Winston-Salem, as well as the Triad, is that “clients that we deal with aren’t always aware of the advantages in this region as they may be of the advantages in the Triangle and Charlotte.”

“They may not perceive the region to be on equal footing when it comes to what they are looking for.

“But, I think there is very little that separates these regions in terms of a lot of the data,” Chung said. “Oftentimes, it’s as much about awareness and perception of what the Triad can represent for companies.”

Chung said that by 2030, “I hope both the data that differentiates the Triad from the Triangle and Charlotte, as well as the perception differences, will be gone.”

“I would love nothing more in my role to have three markets all seen the same way as some of these superstar markets” in other parts of the country.

336-727-7376

@rcraverWSJ

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