Pitt County Round Table May 2012

 

Greenville and Pitt County are positioned to capture the benefits of eastern North Carolina’s slow-but-sure economic recovery.

As the center of economic activity in eastern North Carolina, Pitt County and its largest city, Greenville, are leading the region out of recession. Signs of recovery abound, from Greenville’s small-business grants to Vidant Health’s regional expansion. One reason for the rebound is a robust educational system that includes East Carolina University and its Brody School of Medicine and Pitt Community College, which tailors workforce-development programs for local employers such as DSM Pharmaceuticals Inc., a Dutch multinational with two major manufacturing facilities in Greenville. A panel of business, government and educational leaders met recently at East Carolina Heart Institute in Greenville to discuss the county’s economic opportunities and efforts to promote growth. Participating were Joel Butler, chief external affairs officer for Vidant Health; Bill Cooper, manager of the Pitt Community College Bioprocessing Center, part of the N.C. Community College System’s BioNetwork; Pitt County Manager Scott Elliott; Rick Niswander, vice chancellor for administration and finance at East Carolina University; Susanne Sartelle, president of the Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce; Carson Sublett, vice president of operations and site director of Heerlen, Netherlands-based DSM Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Greenville; Greenville Mayor Allen Thomas; and Wanda Yuhas, executive director of the Pitt County Development Commission. The discussion, moderated by Business North Carolina Publisher Ben Kinney, was presented in partnership with the Pitt County Development Commission. Following is a transcript, edited for brevity and clarity:

What is the economic-development climate in Pitt County?

Yuhas: We’ve seen a definite uptick in client activity and with our existing industries. Existing industries are a really important part of our economy, along with Vidant Health system. I’m not sure from whom we stole this phrase, but we say, “This is the year of reckless optimism.” We are seeing more support — not only verbal but feet-on-the-ground support for economic development from an overall community standpoint — than we’ve ever seen before.

How is Greenville faring economically?

Thomas: Thomas: I think Greenville has worked its way through the economic downturn much better than the region. Obviously jobs are a big priority, as is the quality of life here in Greenville. I think if you’re coming out of the university environment, you have an opportunity with Vidant and some of our other large companies who hire here in the city. But we’re also making the big push for more minimum-wage jobs. I think that’s very important as well. I don’t know if I’d say it’s reckless optimism, but I would say that people are feeling a positive turning, and they feel like Greenville is poised to take leadership for that in the eastern part of the state.

How economically healthy is the health-care sector?

Butler: Vidant Health is doing great. We’re growing, and we’re taking more hospitals as a part of our system of care. We’d like to think we’re exporting value so that those hospitals in small rural communities continue to stay healthy. When they’re healthy and doing well, it helps us. We’re not here to take their patients in; we’re there so they can do a better job taking care of their patients close to home, and that helps us. We’ll continue to grow. We’ll probably soon be a 900- to 1,000-bed hospital, and for a county of this size to have a hospital that big, it’s more than the people who work in the hospital that make that happen. That hospital has been a community effort. It’s been a part of what takes place in the Brody School of Medicine and College of Allied Health Sciences on campus.

What are you hearing from the general business community?

Sartelle: Good things, for the most part. To quote my favorite local economist sitting here beside me, the economy is somewhat akin to a turtle in terms of slow recovery. We’re not recovered but recovering. I think that our renewed focus on economic development from a very, very broad perspective is critical, that we have a lot of partners who bring different stakes to the table. We know our focus on small business is incredibly important. There are small businesses that are still struggling significantly, but the good far outweighs the bad. But a lot of small-business success depends on big-business success, because it is industry that helps to spawn small business, and it is large employers who create that atmosphere. And the chamber’s mission is to build the strongest business climate in eastern North Carolina. We don’t want anybody to question who has the strongest business climate. We want them to automatically know that it is us.

What can the area do to promote small business?

Thomas: We were just recognized recently by the Governor’s Innovative Small Business Community Awards for our innovativeness with our small-business-plan program. Sure, we like to brag about big companies, but we know the backbone of this is going to be small business. Keeping them in our communities is very important, and we’re going to expand that program citywide and make it an annual deal. We’re excited to be able to give those funds, in the case of competition $15,000 to $30,000, and allow them to grow their small business here in the city.

Niswander: Every single week there’s something in The [Greenville] Daily Reflector that talks about some students that have just graduated or graduated a few years ago who are starting up a business or expanding their business. Our challenge is we’ve got a 27,000-student university in a town of 75,000. If this was in Charlotte, you’d never notice it. But in Greenville it makes a huge difference.

How do you foster entrepreneurship?

Sartelle: We’re working right now with the city to put together a program that’s going to help people like college students have an atmosphere to grow their ideas. But one of the things we’ve learned in the last few years is that there’s a significant difference between a young professional and a young entrepreneur. The young professionals want to be very involved in the community. The young entrepreneurs have their heads down trying to build a business and make a living. We have to make sure that we don’t lump them together, and that we help both of those categories to grow.

Yuhas: If we look at our entrepreneurial base, our most successful entrepreneurs are already fairly big businesses in their own right. The Hammock Source, for instance, controls 75% to 85% of the hammock market worldwide. Now we have companies like Pioneer Surgical Technology, which makes granules that bond with bone. They went from a couple of thousand square feet to 8,500 square feet to almost 15,000 square feet in their incubator. That science came out of our university. It’s a health-care product, and it’s manufacturing, and it’s entrepreneurship that is now turning into a standard small business on the way to being a big business.

Can you talk more about that interconnectivity among community partners?

Cooper: Having worked all over the world, this is one of the few places where I don’t see the silos where the university system is here, and the community-college system is here, the economic developers are here. We all work together. We had a company that was looking at Greenville and the recruiting efforts included the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, North Carolina’s Eastern Region partnership, the BioNetwork Bioprocessing Center, Pitt County Development Commission, and I’m sure there were a couple of other groups in there. And one of the comments the company made was they realized that we all knew each other and we worked well together and that this wasn’t the first time that we’ve all been together.

How do the university and the community college fit into this equation?

Yuhas: If you look at a company like DSM, you’ve got DSM Pharma and DSM Dyneema. They’re employing students from the university, and without the skill sets there that wouldn’t be happening. They’re employing people out of the community college’s two-year degree programs. They’re also partnering with the community college on training, and it all ends up being full circle.

Cooper: The university and the community-college system have adapted their training programs and their curriculum to match what local industries need. For example, DSM had a specific piece of equipment at Pitt Community College that they used in their labs. Pitt bought it, and every student that comes out of there has trained on it. So that saves DSM time when they’re training new employees. We know what industry wants because we talk to them. We can react. We’re not afraid to do something to help business.

What are DSM’s growth prospects?

Sublett: DSM hired over 130 people last year. We are on a significant growth path simply because of the shortage of medicines, whether that’s a cancer treatment or other life-saving drugs. We’re having customers contact us because their current suppliers are failing, and they’re coming to us with fast-tracking submissions to prevent physicians from sitting here saying, “OK, I’ve got four patients on this drug, and I only have enough for two. Which two die?” We have some opportunities for investment and expansion and new job creation here in the industry.

What is the city doing to create business opportunities?

Thomas: We just started our own economic-development focus. We’re not trying to overlap, but it’s just another example of the city stepping up and doing our part to maybe refocus more on retail recruitment or other areas that aren’t necessarily a focus of the EDC. Greenville plays a unique role in eastern North Carolina as a retail center and as a center for jobs. People drive from two to three counties away to spend the majority of their life within our borders.

How did county government respond to the recession?

Elliott: When the recession hit, it was probably about a 12-month delay in terms of what happened to sales-tax receipts and what happened to property-tax collection rates. Our revenue to provide services to the public started to fall, even investment earnings, savings and our fund-balance bill. We’re used to earning up to two pennies on tax rates, just investment earnings, so we really started to scramble. We first started spending fund balance but quickly realized you can’t do that. You have to restructure the organization to make sure your expenditures are going to meet your revenue. I feel like our tax base, even over the period of this recession, has fared moderately well compared with other areas.

How were businesses affected by the economic downturn?

Sartelle: I think one of the first signs we saw that there was going to be a negative impact on our community was when gas prices got up to about $4 a gallon a few summers ago. We kept saying we’re somewhat protected from the recession because we have so many stable jobs — the university, the health system — and a lot of really well-paying jobs. But what we saw happen in the retail decline was people were spending their disposable income on necessities, on gas. And there were fewer shoes and pocketbooks and cowboy boots being sold. We lost about 200 members at the height of the recession, but we have more members now than we had before the recession. So, we’ve come back stronger but different.

Thomas: Retail seems to be on a bump up here. We’ve got some new big-box stores that have signed on to build here, such as Dick’s Sporting Goods and a new Walmart.

What are your priorities as you steer your way out of the economic slump?

Butler: Pitt County really does have two faces. It is sometimes as poor as it is wealthy. And so, part of our job post-recession is to rise the tide. We work to improve quality of life — education, health, economic development and jobs. I think we pay attention to those who need help dealing with issues of poverty, like by establishing the Bernstein Community Health Center for those who are uninsured.

Cooper: And that’s why the community-college system is growing so rapidly. All the people who have lost their jobs need new skills. We’re set up here in Pitt County to be able to retrain those people and put them in a position to work at DSM. I can’t tell you how many students have gotten laid off, and they come through the community-college system, and they’re now working at DSM making twice what they used to make.

Yuhas: When DSM or any of our industries say, “We need engineers,” the university says, “OK, what kind of engineer? What would that person look like?” So they not only have engineering, they have the kinds of engineers that our companies and employers need. Then when one of our companies says, “We need welders,” the community college is there to make that happen. When the development commission says 15 years ago, “Boy, we’d really like to go after biotechnology,” then the [North Carolina Biotechnology Center] and the community-college system say, “Yeah, we can design a degree program.”

Can you talk more about the role of education in economic development?

Niswander: Education has the biggest long-term impact on the economic viability of a region, a state or a country, and the one that we tend to not pay a lot of attention to as a society. There’s a growing disconnect between the demands of the workplace and the job skills of the workforce. But you don’t fix it in six months or a year or two years. It is a concerted effort from pre-kindergarten all the way through university, realizing as a society that there are multiple career paths available and they’re all OK.

Thomas: East Carolina University is identifying some of the best and brightest and already involving them in some college curriculum and innovativeness. Cooper: We try to talk to students about all the different career pathways. Do you want to, after high school, get some special training and go right to work? Do you want to go to the community-college system and be a little bit more technical and work in a laboratory, or do you want to go to a university system and learn a bit more about theory, become an engineer, a geneticist or anything along those lines? And you can get on and off that career path.

Sartelle: The school system has a career path called the Health Sciences Academy that has pretty seamless transition if you’re picking a career that requires two years’ additional training from PCC or beyond that at ECU. And some kids graduating high school from the Health Sciences Academy are getting pre-admitted to the Brody School of Medicine.

In what other ways does ECU contribute to economic development?

Sartelle: We are the regional leader, and our success in leading this region really matters to the rural, poorer counties here because the rising tide floats all boats. We feel a real responsibility for those in the region. And East Carolina is now branded as the leadership university. In the College of Business, and maybe other parts of the university as well, when a student graduates they have significant leadership training to go along with a diploma.

How are Greenville and Pitt County managing growth?

Elliott: Between 2000 and 2010 we grew almost 26% from 134,000 to 168,000. Funding the services we provide and the K-12 school system has been challenging, but as the base grows, hopefully, the revenue that we tax on that base will grow.

Thomas: Our growth mirrors the county numbers. In 2000, Greenville [estimated the population would be] about 85,000 in 2020. Guess what? We hit that number in 2010. This is not a Greenville of the 1970s and 1980s. It’s a different economy, and it’s a different dynamic. So we’re looking at progressing to different modes of development throughout the city that provide their own areas of retail, office space and activity. We’ve invested a lot of money in a greenway system and our parks, something that you normally see in cities a little larger than ours, because we know we’re building for the future. We’re not building for an 80,000-person city. We’re building for a 150,000-person city going forward.

What other public investments have been made?

Elliott: We had a need for school facilities for K-12 and community college. Before the recession, Pitt County was one of the first counties to adopt the quarter-cent sales tax. Since that time, we’ve added about $65 million worth of facilities for Pitt County Schools and Pitt Community College. Every city within the county adopted a resolution supporting this project with the assumption that we would dedicate 100% of the proceeds for this purpose.

Cooper: And that’s critical to the ability for the community-college system to react to the fact that when all these people lost their jobs, we had to retrain them and repurpose them. With these facilities, we’re able to do it. Without that, we wouldn’t have the space or the infrastructure to handle that influx of new students. Not that anybody predicted that all this was going to happen.

Thomas: I’ve been in areas that have been a product of massive growth and sprawl, and I think they often lose their identity. But I think what Greenville has managed to do is maintain a personality of who it is and to bring all that personality to where we are today. I think that has a lot to do with what’s special about this place. It still has that charm, but it just has that energy.


This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Business North Carolina magazine.