On Friday, March 22, more than 125 business and community leaders met at the WinMock at Kinderton in Bermuda Run for the “State of Davie” conference hosted by The Business Journal and sponsored by Century Link, Energy United and Novant Health, to discuss Davie County’s recent accomplishments in spurring economic growth in the county and the challenges it faces in the coming years.
Headlining the event were panelists Terry Bralley, president of the Davie County Economic Development Commission; Dr. Darrin Hartness, superintendent of Davie County Schools; Dr. Ken Rethmeier, mayor of Bermuda Run; and Lynn Rumley, mayor of Cooleemee.
Justin Catanoso, current Director of Journalism at Wake Forest University and former executive editor of The Business Journal, moderated a discussion that not only touched upon the county’s successes in bringing in new businesses to the region, but also on the challenges it faces in continuing Davie County’s transition from an outlying “bedroom community” to a jobs destination that attracts industry and young professionals.
The takeaway? The county is undeniably on the right track — but continued success relies on coordinating efforts between leaders in education, industry, technology, and government.
Davie County becoming a destination for careers, education and quality of life
While North Carolina as a whole has seen only mild economic growth in the past 18 months, Davie County has been a hotbed of new business infusion. In April of last year, Ashley Furniture announced it was investing $80 million in a distribution and manufacturing operation in Advance that will lead to the eventual creation of 550 jobs, making it the company’s largest operation in the world. Making good on its word, Ashley began shipping product just seven months later in November, 2012.
Carolina Precision Plastics said in March, 2012, that it would invest $5.3 million in the creation of a manufacturing facility that would lead to 140 new jobs with an average wage of $39,183 (the county average was $28,808 at the time of the announcement).
Pro Refrigeration, Inc. said it will be creating an East Coast production facility in Mocksville that will entail a $4.9 million investment and the need for yet another 85 jobs. Adding to the bright outlook is the slated completion of Novant Health’s Clemmons Medical Center and Wake Forest Baptist-West Campus, bringing high-tech professionals and top-flight health care to the region.
What’s the secret to Davie County’s success? It’s a confluence of high-quality K-12 education, a business-friendly environment, excellent healthcare, and a close-knit community that provides the advantages offered by urban centers with the quality of life people expect when they decide to live in a low-density, non-urban setting.
As moderator Justin Catanoso pointed out during the presentation, these business and civic leaders are “changing the dynamic” from folks seeing Davie County as a “bedroom community” to viewing it as “a destination for careers as well.”
Davie County Schools among the best in North Carolina
An undeniable linchpin of this appeal is the high marks that Davie County schools are racking up. According to Dr. Hartness, Davie County now ranks in the top ten percent of North Carolina’s 115 school districts in math and reading, ranking third in English and math among eight-grade student scores and fourth and fifth for first-year algebra and English students respectively in high school. That’s the sort of thing that makes the county appealing not only to new residents, but to new businesses as well. Jim VanderGiessen Jr, CEO of Pro Refrigeration, said that his decision was based on more than just economic factors. “I have a board of directors that I report to and that I’m accountable to, and they were saying, ‘Why not Alabama? Why not Arkansas?’,” he said. “And the big thing is that this is a community we want to be a part of and are going to be a part of, and we factored that in to our decision.”
Existing building stock and public/private partnerships key to continued success
Still, a good school district doesn’t necessarily equal a good business environment, and that’s where the Davie County Economic Development Commission comes into the picture. Bralley pointed out that “ninety-five percent of what I deal with is companies looking or an existing building, and [for Pro Refrigeration] we had the right building — but we also had the right community.” The coming issue, says Bralley, is the shrinking number of existing spaces, which is why Davie County is working to empower the private sector to build new facilities by partnering with them. City and county officials work to find ways to pay for upfront infrastructure expenses such as road, water, and sewer, while private sector industry picks up the tab for the actual construction — and the jobs that are created create personal wealth and spur on the local economy for even more growth
Cooleemee – Davie County’s smallest town filled with vision and community spirit
The notion of using existing but unused buildings is a model that Cooleemee mayor Lynn Rumley finds appealing. She’s pushing for a $60 to $80 million redevelopment of former textile plant Erwin Mills, based largely upon the success of a similar mixed-used facility in Saxapahaw. “Since the financial meltdown, people have re-evaluated, taken a second look at their lives, and don’t necessarily want a huge house,” said Rumly. “I think they want to live in a somewhat different way. They don’t want to be uncomfortable or poor — nobody does — but I think that they want to live in an actual community. I think they want to live amidst nature.” And while Cooleemee isn’t exactly in the heart of commerce, Rumley said that will be less of an impediment as technology progress. “Of course there’s always going to be people who want to live in the city, and that’s fine. But they say that in the next 25 years half the people will be working at home.”
Town of Bermuda Run building a foundation for a bright future
What is even more impressive about Davie County’s recent achievements is that they’ve come in spite of the fact that demographic shifts have not been working in its favor: in short, the county has been gradually growing older on average. But Dr. Ken Rethmeier, mayor of Bermuda Run, said that a strategy which combines manufacturing, technology, health-care, and learning sectors can create a highly attractive environment for both employers and workers to move to the area and change that trend. “We’re building the foundation upon which we can create those opportunities for new jobs to continue to migrate into the county,” said Rethmeier. “[These] will stimulate the thinking of young people to say, ‘Why do I want to move away when I can make a big difference right where I am today?'”
This double-pronged strategy of drawing newcomers to the region while enticing homegrown professionals to stay (or at least return) home certainly makes sense — and if past success is any indicator, it’s one that appears to already be paying dividends.
Video of the panel discussion is available online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYlvWl0ZuCo