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Dr. Keith Debbage of UNCG was keynote speaker at the Randolph County Economic Development Corporation annual meeting.   Larry Penkava/Randolph Hub

‘No resting on our laurels’

ASHEBORO — Buoyed by successes during the past two years, the annual meeting of the Randolph County Economic Development Corporation was filled with optimism.


But, just as a coach would caution his winning team at halftime, stakeholders were advised that there can be “no resting on our laurels.”


The upbeat meeting was held June 20 at The Roost at Butler Farm between Staley and Liberty.


Bob Crumley, who chaired the EDC Board of Directors during the past year, said the next step is to “take advantage of Toyota” and other advanced manufacturing companies who have settled on the Carolina Core to continue their operations. 


With the expected growth of new businesses around Toyota Battery, Wolfspeed Semiconductors, Boom Supersonic and Vinfast Automotive, Crumley said our area needs to be ready.


He listed a three-pronged approach that starts with re-educating youth and their parents that “manufacturing today is about computers, robots and a clean work environment.” 


The second prong, he said, is to “develop programs to discourage the out-migration of workers on a daily basis.”


The third? “Encourage new folks to make Randolph County their home.”


A strategy being used by the EDC is Randolph Rising, a campaign to raise revenues from local businesses to supplement what has been funded entirely by government. 


The campaign kicked off on Feb. 7 with the goal of raising $1.1 million for a five-year program to grow the skilled workforce, develop industrial sites and market the community. The campaign has already received commitments of more than $1 million.


Kevin Franklin, president of the EDC, reported that there were more than $4.7 billion in investments in industry announced during the past year, including more construction at the Toyota plant, which will result in 872 jobs in Randolph County during the next couple of years. Average wages of those jobs are well above the current local incomes.


Franklin talked about two industrial sites being prepared for future companies, both of them on I-74 at US 311.


The I-74 Industrial Center is on 170 acres where $1.8 million in infrastructure construction is slated to begin in the fall.


Just across US 311 is a 70-acre tract which has rail service. Infrastructure construction for that site is also planned for the fall.


Other major announcements this year were new companies locating here, including Axium Packaging and Sumitomo Forestry America, both in Archdale.


Expansions of existing companies were announced by Energizer in Asheboro, Lancaster and Aeolus Filter in Archdale, Pemmco in Asheboro, Mid State Trailers in Denton and UpStyled Goods and Salon in Asheboro.


The keynote speaker was Dr. Keith Debbage, UNC-Greensboro professor of Urban Planning, Regional Development and Tourism. He opened his remarks by saying, “We won by losing.” 


He was referring to the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite being passed over by Toyota-Mazda for a manufacturing plant, choosing instead to locate at Huntsville, Ala.


Debbage said, “We lost an internal combustion engine plant. Now we have a battery plant” to produce batteries for electric vehicles, considered to be the future of highway transportation.


Debbage said the BMW production facility in Spartanburg, SC, which opened in 1994, “created 23,000 jobs, including the plants located around it. That will happen here.”


In fact, Debbage predicted that the next 10 years will bring $30 billion in capital investments and more than 25,000 jobs.


Spinoff business from those investments will create another 50,000 jobs with annual wages of between $65,000 and $110,000.


The current spate of megaprojects, he said, were the result of “a long gestational period of planning.” He said marketing the region from Winston-Salem to Fayetteville as the Carolina Core “has been incredibly successful.”


The Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro now has Boom as well as Hondajet, Haeco, Cessna and others calling it home.


"The Greensboro airport may have more jobs than any airport in North Carolina,” Debbage said.


He called Wolfspeed “the largest silicon carbide plant in the world,” just across the Chatham County line. “It’s important to electric vehicle powertrains,” Debbage said of Wolfspeed, which is investing $5 billion and expects to employ 1,100.


Vinfast, on the other side of Chatham County, will invest $4.5 billion and hire 7,500 to build electric vehicles. 


Meanwhile, Siemens Mobility announced plans to build a facility to produce railroad cars in Lexington, creating 500 jobs.


“Much of the electric vehicle value chain is right here,” Debbage said. “The labor pool will have transferable skills.”


With growth, there comes challenges, he said. Those challenges include:

— The current high price of electric vehicles.

— Keeping up with a supply of batteries.

— The range of electric vehicles.

— Delays at the Vinfast plant.

— Developing a national network of charging stations.

— Attracting new talent.

— Nurturing and planning spinoff firms.

— Providing housing.

— Planning sensible land-use development.


The future, Debbage said, “will take careful planning.” Change can be “very disruptive but this electric vehicle cluster may be the biggest opportunity for Randolph County and the region.”