By Eliot Duke
Dunn Daily Record
“Towns are built on a 3-legged stool: marketplace, education and faith. … If any of those legs fails, the stools falls.”
– Four Oaks Mayor Linwood Parker
Stripped down of all the talk concerning land usage and infrastructure, the I-95/I-40 Crossroads of America Economic Development Alliance really is about one thing: creating good paying jobs.
Dunn and Four Oaks came together in hopes of changing a trajectory of economic stagnation that turned the area from a place where people could raise a family to one where people leave as soon as their able. A lack of quality jobs along the I-95 corridor between Johnston and Harnett County left a generation of people unable to live the life of their parents. Manufacturing jobs that supported entire towns left and when little else returned, residents either fled or were forced to work far away from home.
Dunn Mayor William Elmore said this way of doing things has to stop.
“We haven’t sold ourselves and we haven’t told our story,” Elmore said. “We’ve just sat here and taken what we could get. We’ve got to change that and put jobs here so our people can stay here, and shop here and spend their money here. This whole thing is about job creation. We need to put our local folks to work in good paying jobs.”
Dunn and Four Oaks lost a key partner in the alliance earlier this year when Benson decided to pull out unexpectedly. Elmore and Four Oaks Mayor Linwood Parker faced a crossroads of their own, as the partnership they spent a year facilitating teetered on the brink of collapse. Both men simply saw too much potential and too great a need for such a relationship that they elected to move forward as a fellowship of two, hoping Benson may one day return to the fold.
“We should have had an income-driver ever since I-40 and Interstate 95 crossed,” said Parker. “That has not happened. That tells me what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked. What are we missing? The team approach is a lot better approach. One of the most important things in life is a paycheck on Friday. We want to become self-sufficient so our people don’t have to drive to Durham to make a living. We can do better.”
In crafting the partnership, framers focused on three key areas: land, infrastructure and a trained workforce. Dunn and Four Oaks have plenty of land and both are currently working to address infrastructure improvements to aging water and sewer systems.
What the area lacked, and had suffered from in the past, was a shortage of workers qualified for today’s jobs in the tech and pharmaceutical industry. A key component of the alliance focused on different ways of developing such a workforce so when companies come looking for a place to set up shop, the employees are here waiting for them.
“What we’ve got to do is keep people here,” Elmore said. “What we want to create is a 15-minute drive to work or less. We just don’t have the jobs here right now. I think we’ve got too much to offer not to proceed further with the two communities. We’ve got a lot of legwork to do but this is the beginning of the process.”
If the two communities hope to attract the types of businesses it wants for its residents, companies need to know not only that a building is feasible, but filling the facility with quality, educated workers also is realistic. Part of the alliance’s framework centered around a collaboration between the towns and their respective community colleges, and creating an avenue for workers to get trained.
“Apple and Google, we want to attract those kinds of companies here,” said Reid Williams, a Dunn native recently hired to lead the alliance’s economic development strategies. “We want to attract large, good employers that require workforce development and have good paying jobs. We don’t want to be training Wake County workers. The infrastructure is in place and if we train the workforce, the companies will come.”
Few municipalities work together on such endeavors, Williams pointed out, which makes the alliance unique in that the formula could open some eyes when it comes to future economic development opportunities. By sharing resources such as infrastructure, Four Oaks and Dunn opened up endless possibilities as to what they could do together for the betterment of both communities.
“It’s an enhanced opportunities partnership to create good, local jobs,” Williams said. “I think it’s an eye-catcher to see municipalities join hands and work together for their people. Our long-term goal is when people look at North Carolina to do business that Crossroads of America is at the top of their list. It’s an attractive place already. It’s workforce development, making sure the adequate infrastructure is in place and then jobs and the properties come.”
Elmore stressed the importance of doing things right the first time, especially in the early stages of the alliance. This includes ensuring the land being offered to companies is capable of supporting business, the infrastructure is in place and programs are up and running to train workers.
Once the alliance gets off the ground and starts producing results, Parker expects other municipalities to join in, creating an even bigger partnership that could help even more people rise up from low-paying jobs and hopelessness.
“Over time, we’ve lost more jobs to the workforce not being prepared more so than any other infrastructure or land,” said Parker. “Once you identify these things and go to working on it, companies start to look at you. The primary goal once the infrastructure is in place will be to create a school of advanced manufacturing and advanced technology to tie in with Apple and Google. The number one thing we’re going to have outside of infrastructure is an educated workforce. If we’re successful, Cumberland County is going to want to join in. If Cumberland comes, Sampson comes. If Sampson comes, then Wayne ought to come. Over the next 4 to 5 years I think we’ll have 5 counties instead of these two counties.”
Parker reflected back to a time when a family living in the area could stay here, raise a family and send their children off to do whatever they wanted. He championed the alliance as way to return to those times and give residents a reason to live, shop and worship closer to home.
“Towns are built on a 3-legged stool: marketplace, education and faith,” Parker said. “It’s the most unstable stool you can have. If any of those legs fails, the stools falls. We don’t want to see that happen. We want to build a good marketplace of good jobs based on education. We will measure success when a parent can tell their child they can stay right here and a job is waiting for you. That’s success.”