Tar Heel Tattler - August 2007

Action does speak louder than words
By Frank Maley

Not quite three years ago, a Philip Morris USA executive had nice things to say about doing business in North Carolina. Prompted by $1.1 million in state incentives to protect about 2,600 jobs, the cigarette maker was spending $138 million to upgrade its Concord factory. “We believe in North Carolina,” a press release quoted John R. Nelson, president of operations and technology. “We believe in the people here, and we believe that our future together is bright.”

But brief, it turns out. In June, Altria Group Inc., Philip Morris’ New York-based parent, said it would close the plant and move production to Richmond, Va., by 2011. That will hit Concord hard. The company is its largest taxpayer, the cigarette factory accounting for 13.5% of the property-tax base. It could have been worse. The city also had promised up to $1.1 million of incentives and paid out $313,390, but Philip Morris says it will repay that, as well as the $750,000 it has gotten so far from the state.

As hyperbole goes, Nelson’s was mild compared with former Gov. Jim Hunt’s prophecy in 2000, when New York-based Corning Inc. announced it would expand optical-fiber factories in Wilmington and outside Concord in Midland. “This is a defining moment for North Carolina’s telecommunications industry. Corning’s expansion of its North Carolina facilities is a tribute to the quality of our state’s workers and to our state’s status as a leader in optical-fiber production and can only lead to future growth and high-quality jobs.”

Or not. Corning touted another expansion at Midland later that year but never completed it. Three years later, the plant closed, idling about 500. Corning did say the shutdown would be temporary and kept on a skeleton crew. In April, it announced that it would restart production. Ramping up typically takes six to nine months, but a spokesman wouldn’t say when or how many workers would be hired.

State officials welcomed the news with optimism that was muted but still somewhat reminiscent of Nelson’s. “This announcement shows that companies can thrive and prosper in North Carolina,” Gov. Mike Easley said. “... Corning could have gone anywhere in the nation, or the world, but it was committed to our state because of what we do to help businesses grow and prosper.”

So let’s give the governor his chance to crow — and hope he won’t wind up having to eat it.