The large group of economic development officials, business leaders and elected officials who assembled on Thursday, May 25 to discuss the current state of economic conditions in Guilford County didn’t break out into a chorus of “Happy Days Are Here Again” – but, in light of a boom of economic activity going on around the county in recent months, there was an almost giddy mood in the room as the group heard one positive economic report after another.
The joint meeting of the Leadership Group of the Guilford County Economic Development Alliance (GCEDA) and the GCEDA Business Advisory Council was held at the Cameron Campus of Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) in Colfax, and it took place on the same morning that area newspapers carried front page stories about a new nine-story office building planned for downtown Greensboro – and also came on the heels of an announcement that High Point University President Nido Qubein would lead that city’s effort to develop the downtown area. Qubein had just announced that he expects to raise $38 million from private sources to spur development around the new stadium in High Point’s distressed downtown.
At the May 25 meeting, the group heard many other indications that the local economy is gaining steam, the unemployment rate is falling and area consumers, builders and businesses are gaining confidence.
The GCEDA Business Advisory Council is made up of 12 business and community leaders, while the Leadership Group is composed of economic development officials, elected leaders and staff from the three GCEDA partners – Guilford County, Greensboro and High Point.
Ken Smith, a member of the Leadership Group and chairman of the High Point Economic Development Corp., said during the meeting that things seem to be taking off.
“It’s been really exciting to me to see so much stuff going on in each of the communities – whether it’s the county or either city,” he said. “Even before Nido’s announcement, the whole attitude in town [High Point] has just changed, and I hear the same thing going on in Greensboro and, of course, the county grows with all that. I think it’s pretty exciting to see good things happening all around.”
A year ago when this group met in the same room, the full force of controversial state law House Bill 2 was being felt, the national and local economy still seemed to be dragging a great deal, and the only optimism in the air was the unfounded optimism that business leaders always have. However, last week’s meeting felt much different because of a recent slew of announcements that signal Guilford County is on a very positive track when it comes to economic development.
Members of both the Leadership Group and the Advisory Council pointed out new projects, indications of new hiring and other signs of economic activity blossoming.
The large number of construction jobs in the county have been annoying for commuters, but they are clear signs of economic activity with money being spent for both private and public projects.
Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan, a member of the GCEDA Leadership Group, was late to the May 25 meeting because of construction projects and road renovation work in northwest Guilford County that caused several members to arrive well after the meeting had begun.
“I apologize for being late,” Vaughan said. “I ran into some of the same traffic situations that you did and I wish that I had stock in traffic cones. You can just see them all over the county.”
She talked about the new building announced the day before for downtown Greensboro and said the mid-rise office building – which will contain over 110,000 square feet – would be the first new large office building in downtown Greensboro in two decades.
“We’re excited about that,” she said.
Vaughan pointed out that clothing and gift company Simply Southern recently had a ribbon-cutting in Greensboro for their expansion. The company bought a $9-million building on Gallimore Dairy Road last year for that purpose.
“I did not realize until a few months ago that Simply Southern was actually based here in Greensboro, and they have really broadened their footprint so they continue to hire more people,” the Greensboro mayor said. “One thing I’ve noticed is that we’ve had an awful lot of ‘quiet expansions’ – people who don’t come to us for economic development grants or they don’t make a big deal about it.”
Vaughan said one example of that is Lincoln Financial Group’s growth in Greensboro.
“They are putting millions and millions of dollars into that building downtown and they continue to hire people,” she said. “If there was an announcement that someone was going to invest $35 million and hire a couple of hundred people over the next year or so, that would be a huge announcement; but we can point to companies like that that continue to expand quietly in our city. I think that Greensboro is in a good place and we’re happy with the progress that we’re seeing.”
She also pointed to coming parking decks and hotels in downtown Greensboro as well.
“We know we can continue the momentum that we’re building at this point,” Vaughan said.
The same type of optimism permeated the comments from High Point Mayor Bill Bencini. That city saw an impressive number of job expansions in 2016. Bencini said economic development staff in High Point had been doing a great job recruiting new businesses and helping existing businesses expand.
“We seem to be hitting on all cylinders right now,” he said.
He said the city was also making good progress in addressing downtown blight. The planned new baseball stadium is meant to help in that regard as well.
Bencini said the city’s goal is to keep the “best and brightest in High Point and attract a few more.”
GCEDA members also got a report on companies hiring in Guilford County over the last 90 days. In the “who’s hiring” category over the past three months, the leader was the Moses Cone Health System with 345 hires, followed by the University of North Carolina System with 272. Volvo was third with 259 hires.
The jobs being filled over the last 90 days largely went to truck drivers, registered nurses, customer service representatives and maintenance and repair workers. Technology jobs, such as computer-user support specialists, are also high on the list.
According to a report compiled by the North Carolina Department of Commerce presented at the meeting, there are 4,651 more people working in Guilford County than one year ago.
The county and its cities have plenty of other irons in the fire as well. A large municipal water system expansion program is being planned in northwest Guilford County, and a taxiway bridge to an aviation megasite at Piedmont Triad International Airport (PTIA) is nearing completion. Economic development officials have just added and filled a position focused on recruiting aviation companies. That new position was created by a collaborative effort between the Piedmont Triad Partnership, the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce, PTIA, the High Point Economic Development Corp. and Winston-Salem Business Inc.
GTCC is about to open a giant Center for Advanced Manufacturing to help with workforce development, and GTCC just got word it was receiving $650,000 from a state economic development grant for that project. The new Greensboro-Randolph megasite is also a focal point of high hopes for local leaders.
Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing’s remarks at the meeting were very positive as well. He explained that Guilford County government is in the middle of the budget process and he said that sales taxes – the county’s second largest revenue source after property taxes – were up 8 percent.
“We’re also seeing some increases in building permit applications, which is a good sign,” Lawing said.
Darlene Leonard, a managing partner with the accounting and consulting firm Smith Leonard and a member of the Advisory Council, said her company does a lot of work in mergers and acquisitions and she added that those were increasing in the area. She said business buyers had high confidence right now and it was showing.
“It’s very hot market out there,” she said. “There’s a lot of money on the sidelines and it’s a really good time to own a business. I think people are confident with the business environment and they are ready to hire people, and we’ve just got to get the people ready.”
Bob Singer, an attorney with Brooks Pierce and a member of the Advisory Council, echoed the sentiments of others in the room.
“From my office, all I see is people building stuff,” Singer told the group.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips, a financial advisor by trade, said his company had merged with three others and located in “midtown,” where he said Greensboro developer Marty Kotis planned more than $50 million in development. Phillips added that the Downtown Greenway coming through that section of town should help the appeal of that section of Greensboro.
A few weeks earlier, Phillips had pointed out a lot of encouraging facts regarding the local economy in his State of the County speech. In that address, Phillips said, “The stage is set, in my view, on the economic development front, for a very bright future.”
Phillips said in that speech that the March 2017 issue of Site Selection magazine had ranked Greensboro-High Point sixth nationally for “Metro regions with populations between 200,000 and 1 million,” with “the advancement of a total of 33 new projects.”
As for manufacturing, he said, Guilford County now ranks first in the State of North Carolina and fourth in the southeastern United States with 33,232 manufacturing jobs.
Phillips also said that, in 2016, between new corporate announcements and existing industry expansions, over 3,600 new jobs were announced in Guilford County with over $160 million in private investment coming in.