Early earns NEED award

Published 6:56 am Monday, March 25, 2013

WINTON – William S. (“Bill”) Early has spent nearly a quarter of a century attracting $900 million worth of business development in Hertford County.

Not to sound greedy, but he wants more.

“I want to get to one billion dollars of investment here before I retire,” said Early, who serves as Executive Director of Hertford County’s Economic Development Commission.

Apparently, others are noticing Early’s ability to build on Hertford County economic foundation.

At the fourth annual State of the Northeast Region meeting held earlier this month in Williamston, Early earned an Exemplary Service Award as presented by the Northeast Economic Developers group (NEED).

“I was overwhelmed that I was chosen by my peers to be recognized with this esteem honor,” Early said.

Even though he was humbled by the honor and proud that the economic development efforts of Hertford County were recognized in front of a crowd in excess of 300 individuals, he noted the importance of the regional concept as used by the Northeast Commission.

“I can remember the time when every county was on its own when it came to economic development,” said Early, who celebrated his 24th year as Hertford County’s EDC Director this past December. “This regional effort has a huge advantage with 16 counties working in unison. We meet monthly as a group and there we are able to build on each other, gain ideas from each other, and formulate plans that are beneficial to all the counties in our region. We’re much more productive as a group rather than the old days when we worked individually.”

Early’s efforts over a 24-year span has seen 51 businesses either locate or expanded existing operations in Hertford County. Those businesses account for over $900 million in investments for the county and 1,973 jobs.

A few of the newer business projects in the county include a major expansion at Nucor Steel (adding a heat-treated facility), Alfiniti coming to Winton at the old Carolina Aluminum site, Metal Tech’s expansion that added 20 jobs, the opening of Structural Coatings near Cofield, Sun Power near Murfreesboro, and Enviva Pellets in Ahoskie, the addition of Wellings Energy at the Perdue Feed Mill at Cofield, and the successful solicitation of building reuse grants for Ace Home Center and Tavern 125, both in Murfreesboro.

Meanwhile, the entire northeast region is experiencing growth as well. As noted at the State of the Northeast Region meeting, held at the Senator Bob Martin Agricultura Center in Williamston, Kyle Snyder, director of the Next GenAir Transportation Center at NC State University, presented an overview of opportunities surrounding unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The small, remotely piloted aircraft have operating costs that are a small fraction of conventional planes. UAVs offer exciting applications in agriculture, land management, emergency response, public safety and more.

“There’s no limitation on where we can go with these systems,” Snyder said.

Hyde County’s Engelhard Airport has been identified by state and federal aviation entities as a testing site for unmanned aircraft. The sparsely populated community sits adjacent restricted military airspace.

While North Carolina’s economy was showing positive growth, data continued to suggest a cautious environment for business expansion and employment, said Scott Custer, chief executive officer of VantageSouth Bank.

“Are things still going down? No. But we’re not headed in much of an upward trajectory either,” Custer said.

The Raleigh-based financial company (formerly Crescent State Bank) recently acquired East Carolina Bank, making VantageSouth the largest community bank serving eastern North Carolina. Now North Carolina’s second largest SBA lender, the bank has plans to grow its presence, now at 45 branches, across Virginia and the Carolinas.

“We know how to grow in a way that is mindful of customers and communities,” he said.

Some 20 percent of eastern North Carolinians lack health insurance coverage, Dr. David Herman told the gathering. As CEO of Greenville-based Vidant Healthcare (formerly University Health Systems), Herman oversees 13,000 employees and $1.6 billion in operating revenues.

“Scale and scope matter in healthcare,” he said.

Spiraling costs, chronic disease epidemics and an aging population were key factors driving systemic reforms in healthcare delivery.

“There’s a general recognition that the current situation is unsustainable,” Herman said, calling for more outcome based care models that emphasize value rather than volume.

Vann Rogerson, president and CEO of North Carolina’s Northeast Commission, reviewed results of the prior year. They included the enrollment of the initial class of students at the Northeast Regional School of Agriscience and Biotechnology in Roper, an innovative STEM high school serving much of the region.

Between the region’s marine industrial parks, the North Carolina Center for Automotive Research (NC CAR) in Northampton County and the UAV testing site in Hyde County, the Northeast Region is uniquely positioned for innovation in “autonomous” transportation systems.

“We can test on land, sea or air,” said Rogerson.

Recent upgrades in high-speed Internet access in the region included additional “middle-mile” infrastructure developed through a network of telecommunications firms and granting agencies.

“We’ve got some really terrific partners working with us on that,” Rogerson said.

The region’s abundant coastline, forests and farmlands are luring an array of exciting alternative energy projects to the Northeast, spanning the solar, wind and bio-mass sectors.

“These are special opportunities for us because we’re rural,” Rogerson explained.

North Carolina Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker told the gathering that the Northeast Region has a unique opportunity to re-shape its economic terrain. The region’s convenience to the Hampton Roads, VA metro area puts some Northeast communities in play for significant commercial, residential and industrial growth. She likened those opportunities to the success South Carolina towns such as Rock Hill and Fort Mill have enjoyed after integrating their economic planning with that of the fast-growing Charlotte Region over the last generation.

“You have a tremendous opportunity in North Carolina’s Northeast to think creatively about economic transformation,” Decker said.

She reviewed five areas of policy emphasis she intends to pursue as Secretary of Commerce. They include the goals of healthier workers, better vocational education and a focus on the needs of North Carolina’s small businesses.

There is also more the state can do to harness the economic potential of its tourism, arts and cultural resources, she said. “We have something unique here, and we’ve got to build on it,” said Decker, noting that some 40,000 North Carolina businesses were linked in some way to tourism.

Decker said sustainable economic development must also include responsible stewardship of the environment.

“Quality of life matters, and we’ve got to protect it,” she noted.

The Northeast’s marine trades workforce is a key selling-point in efforts to expand the region’s boatbuilding industry, according to Peter Johnstone, CEO of Gunboat

International, which launched a major manufacturing presence in Dare County last May. Speaking via video, Johnstone offered his feedback regarding his company’s experiences thus far there.

“Most of our workers have boatbuilding in their blood,” he explained.

In his Rhode Island-based company’s search for a location at which to “inshore” manufacturing operations previously housed in China and South Africa, Johnstone also considered communities in Florida and Virginia. Ready supplies of skilled workers made Northeastern North Carolina a neat fit for his company and its business plans.

“There are very few areas in the world that have the [same] depth and breadth of employees,” he said.

The company, which builds high-end recreational catamarans, currently has a workforce of 40 jobs at Wanchese Seafood Industrial Park, with plans to employ 100 by the end of the year.

“We feel so fortunate to have found Northeastern North Carolina,” Johnstone said. “This is just a start.”

Other than Early’s honor, regional officials gave Exemplary Service Awards to two other key leaders, acknowledging the important contributions each had made during the past year.

Donna Stewart, director of the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center, was recognized by her colleagues on the Northeast Tourism (“NET”) group. Allen Purser, president and CEO of the Roanoke Valley Chamber of Commerce, received the 2013 Service Award from Chambers of the Northeast (“CONE”).

State legislators, town council members, mayors and county commissioners were among those in attendance at the event.

The 2013 State of the Northeast Region occurred through funding support from numerous sponsors. The North Carolina Electric Cooperative and four of the region’s electric membership coops joined in sponsoring at the Silver Level: Edgecombe-Martin EMC, Halifax EMC, Roanoke EMC and Tideland EMC. ElectriCities also was a Silver Sponsor.

Event sponsors included Avoca, A.R. Chesson Construction Co., Bull & Company MediaWorks, Dominion North Carolina Power and Piedmont Natural Gas.

The Northeast’s Committee of 1000, which co-hosted the State of the Region, enjoys ongoing financial support from numerous business and economic development allies in the region.

For additional information, visit www.ncnortheast.info

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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