Economic Development Luncheon Draws Over 200

(Left to right) Jiles Harrell with the NC Department of Transportation, Dr. Mike Walden an Reynolds Distinguished Professor of Economics at NC State University, Selma Mayor Cheryl Oliver, NC House Member Larry Strickland and Chris Johnson, Economic Development Director for Johnston County all spoke during the Economic Development Luncheon held this week in Smithfield.

Highway Upgrades, Workforce Skills, Industry-Ready Sites and Buildings Are Top Priorities for One of North Carolina’s Fastest-Growing Counties

Jobs and population are growing at rates faster than the state or nation, and that puts a premium on transportation improvements, occupational skills and buildable industrial properties. Those were among the key messages more than 200 participants heard this week at the 2017 Johnston County Economic Development Luncheon, held at the Johnston County Agricultural Center.

“Johnston County’s population is expected to grow by 50 percent between 2010 and 2050,” said Dr. Mike Walden, Reynolds Distinguished Professor of Economics at North Carolina State University. “That’s an addition of 100,000 people.” Economic opportunities will come in the wake of that rapid growth. “Employment is increasing in the county faster than the state overall,” he said. Among the indicators Walden watches is the “buying deficit,” which is the tendency of county residents to make retail purchases in neighboring counties. “Johnston County still has a deficit, but it is getting smaller,” said Walden.

Walden, who joined the NCSU faculty in 1978, spoke of statewide and national trends that are impacting the county’s economic potential. The U.S. economic expansion is now in its 102nd consecutive month – the 3rd longest in history. “The current 3.3 percent GDP growth rate is the highest since the Great Recession,” Walden said. “Optimism is high, and while interest rates have ticked up, they are still affordable.” North Carolina’s manufacturing sector – which is about one-fifth of the state’s GDP – is twice that of the nation overall. Wages for manufacturing and construction employees are up significantly over the past two years, Walden said, possibly reflecting worker shortages in the sectors. “One of the biggest issues I see is how technology is dramatically affecting the kinds of jobs we have,” he said. Some predict half the occupations of today will be gone by 2050. “That will put a lot of pressure on our educational institutions to accommodate a whole new category of students: adults seeking re-training.”

Jiles Harrell, a professional engineer with 10 years of experience at the North Carolina Department of Transportation, reviewed state plans for transportation upgrades in and around Johnston County. “A lot of our economic development happens in conjunction with our road-building and planning,” said Harrell, a Johnston County native. The state is four years into a new formula of data-based funding known as the Strategic Transportation Initiative (STI). The formula considers utilization, safety and cost factors. Harrell briefed the gathering on improvements underway and on the horizon for I-95, I-40 and U.S. Highway 70. Extensive upgrades, for example, will occur in conjunction with Highway 70’s conversion to I-42. “Our ultimate goal is to eliminate every red light from Morehead City to Raleigh, for purposes of speeding the movement of freight to the port there,” Harrell said. DOT intends to widen I-40 from four lanes to eight from the Raleigh Beltline to NC Highway 42 and re-engineer interchanges serving the Cleveland community. The completion of I-540 from Holly Springs to I-40 should begin by 2020; the extension of I-540 from Knightdale to I-40 will commence in 2027, he said. Both will facilitate more convenient movement of commuter traffic to and from western Johnston County. “The goal is to improve accessibility and connectivity in the area,” Harrell said.

Economic Development Director Chris Johnson offered highlights from a recent study of Johnston County by Ted Abernathy of Raleigh-based Economic Leadership LLC. “As Raleigh grows we will grow also,” Johnson said. “Employment growth has outpaced both the state and the nation.” While the county’s manufacturing output has grown significantly, the sector is less labor-intensive. “We’re producing more with fewer people,” Johnson said. “That’s a testament to technology and automation.” But possibly related to that trend is a surge in I/T and software jobs in Johnston County. “That’s become a new target for us,” he said. Tight labor markets and a dearth of available industrial sites and buildings are taking Johnston County off the short-list of possible destinations for expanding and relocating businesses. “We’ve missed out on projects because our economy is at full employment,” Johnson said. “Talent” – the availability of ready workers with industry-specific skills — remains the number one factors companies consider when making new investments. The county lacks available buildings that fit specifications today’s industries seek – such as ceiling heights that are at least 32 feet. “Companies want to go vertical,” he said.

The annual Economic Development Luncheon is organized by Johnston County’s seven chambers of commerce, which collaborate under an umbrella association. Other programs offered by the group include an annual Teacher of the Year Award, a Legislative Luncheon held each spring, and Leadership Johnson, a nine-month civic development curriculum for county business, community and governmental leaders. “Our programs are designed to facilitate regional approaches for connecting educational, economic and social interests,” explained Kelly Wallace of the Smithfield-Selma Chamber of Commerce.

Selma Mayor Cheryl Oliver, who chairs the Johnston County Economic Development Advisory Board, was the Luncheon’s final speaker. “It’s a great time to be in Johnston County, and these are exciting times,” said Oliver, who encouraged attendees to adopt the findings into their organizational and business planning. “I hope you’ll take this information and use it to help you grow with JoCo.”

The Johnston County Economic Development Office (JCEDO) promotes job creation and economic investment in Johnston County. A unit of county government, JCEDO collaborates with local, regional and statewide partners and allies in providing confidential location assistance to businesses and technical support to the county’s 11 municipalities.