The Pilot – Economy Slowly Rebounding

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Signs of modest recovery are slowly emerging, but Moore County cannot expect a return to a normally robust economy for another couple of years.

Representatives from the major economy-driving engines offered some upbeat commentary but remained cautious in their projections last Thursday when they addressed the Moore County Board of Commissioners at an all-day business retreat.

The impact from the coming expansion of Fort Bragg as a result of BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) was among the key topics.

“It hasn’t happened yet,” said Ray Ogden about the highly publicized BRAC. “It’s still hazy how it’s going to play out here.”

Ogden is executive director of Partners in Progress, a public/private partnership promoting economic development throughout Moore County.

Counties surrounding the sprawling Fort Bragg reservation have been girding for growth as the military base is expanding as a result of base closures elsewhere in the country. Expectations have been building up for the past four years, but the big push is yet to come.

However, Ogden did share plenty of good news.

So far this year, nine companies have announced plans for expansions and new facilities expected to create 395 new jobs and representing investments totaling $5.32 million.

The biggest is the $2.7 million Ingersoll Rand expansion in Southern Pines, adding 98 jobs. Trident Marketing has announced a $750,000 investment in its Southern Pines facilities, creating 80 new jobs, and another Southern Pines enterprise, K2 Solutions, will add 50 jobs in a $500,0000 investment. Connectinc plans to invest $480,000 to renovate the former Carthage Fabrics building and create 32 jobs.

Other projects are planned in Aberdeen, Pinebluff and Robbins.

Ogden said that Partners in Progress rounded up more than $1 million in grants through the N.C. Rural Center to boost these economic endeavors in Moore County. He called it the most grant money ever awarded in one year.

“I think a million bucks in one year is pretty good,” Ogden said.

‘Beginning to Shape Up’

On the negative side, Ogden said that the unemployment rate remains low, and several empty buildings remain available. However, he is hopeful about prospects to fill a flex building in the Southern Pines Corporate Park, where 57,457 square feet are “beginning to shape up.”

Other available buildings awaiting purchase or tenants include 16,000 square feet at 322 Fields Drive in Aberdeen, empty for the first time; 21,460 square feet in the Southern Floor building in Robbins; 95,000 square feet in the Klaussner building in Robbins; and 153,000 square feet in the Candor Hosiery Building, also in Robbins.

Ogden said the Iron Horse Industrial Park in Aberdeen has 125 acres but needs an industry that can use the available railroad spur. The Southern Pines Corporate Park offers 99 acres zoned for urban progress.

The joint Moore-Montgomery industrial park initiative just getting started will provide about 3,000 acres straddling the two county lines.

Ogden said this project, known as the Heart of North Carolina Mega-Park, offers promise because of its “perfect location” and other potential attractions. He said PIP is looking for funds to cover the cost of surveying the land, developing a master plan and related expenses.

Ogden said the mega-park may not be fully developed for 20 years, “but we need to do the groundwork now.”

Capital Challenges

Ogden said many companies are not investing or hiring because of the shaky economy and because of concern about regulations.

He called the lack of available capital one of the most serious factors. He told of two businesses that recently indicated interest in expanding but were unable to do so because they couldn’t raise sufficient capital.

“Starting a business right now is difficult, but that is where the jobs are,” Ogden said. “We have to figure out ways to get capital to these guys,” Ogden said.

In an overview of economic conditions here, Ogden said that although the jobless rate remains high, it is still lower than in most neighboring counties, with the exception of Chatham. He said average wage scale is lower and overtime has been reduced at many businesses.

Ogden said construction work took one of the biggest hits when it comes to hiring. However, the county and municipalities have issued $56 million in building permits, including the $40.7 million FirstHealth Heart Center, the $11 million Pinehurst Medical Clinic and $4.3 million in school facilities.

He said that Partners is remaining visible in making contact with potential companies and with BRAC officials.

“We’re making sure the area is before those people before they come here,” he said, adding that earlier that day his office had received two requests for additional information.

Presence at Airport

Commissioner-elect Craig Kennedy, who attended the retreat, said he would like to see a Partners in Progress presence at the county airport.

Although the airport no longer offers passenger service, it remains a busy arrival and departure point for executives of some of the largest corporations in the country. These people arrive in corporate jets, spend a few days golfing and fly back home.

Kennedy, who will be part of the county budget-making process next spring, said he wanted to reach those top executives when they first arrive in the county.

Carol Thomas, a key administrator for the Moore County Airport, said the airport authority would welcome the presence of Partners. She said that in most cases, airport officials do not know these top executives are coming until they actually arrive.

Fred Hobbs, Partners board chairman, introduced Ogden and reminded the gathering that when the nonprofit agency was founded in 2002, the county was funding the economic development program with an appropriation as high as $300,000 a year. The county now contributes about $100,000 and local businesses, industries and institutions cover the remaining costs.

Hobbs also pointed out that Partners operates with what is probably the smallest economic development staff in the state.