County: In The Fast Lane
By Casey Jacobus
not much commercial development yet at the
interchanges and traffic mostly is light on the
new, interstate-quality US 321 that flows into
Catawba County from the south. Having opened
barely six months ago, the new transportation
corridor still is seen as a faster way to get
from Hickory to Charlotte rather than a
destination in itself. But many people expect
that will change soon.
Catawba County, nestled
between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Piedmont
region of North Carolina, became a center of
furniture manufacturing after Duke Power erected
hydroelectric dams on the Catawba River in the
1920s, pouring inexpensive electricity into the
area. And it became home to a burgeoning
telecommunications manufacturing center in the 1970s when the arrival of
Interstate 40 gave Catawba quick access to
markets (and airports) in Winston-Salem,
Greensboro and Raleigh to the east and Asheville
and Knoxville to the west.
Now, the new Highway 321
is expected by many to become a similar catalyst
for economic growth. Completed at a cost of $45
million, the new four-lane puts most of Catawba
County within an hour's drive of the Charlotte
metropolitan area, including Charlotte- Douglas
International Airport. Before, drivers headed to
Charlotte went east on I-40 to Statesville, then
turned south on I-77 to reach the Queen City.
Now, they can cut almost due southeast on Highway
321 and arrive much sooner.
When you know you
can hop on 321 and be at the (Charlotte) airport
in 45 minutes or an hour, it is really conducive
to doing business, says Bryan Derreberry,
president and CEO of the Catawba County Chamber
of Commerce. The chamber has such high hopes for
the new transportation corridor that it opened
its new $2 million visitor's center and
headquarters just off the new highway in the
SouthGate Corporate Park last summer.
Hickory, the county's
largest city; Newton, the county seat; and Maiden
have spent or plan to spend millions to extend
water and sewer lines along Highway 321. With
utilities in place, industrial and commercial
growth is expected to follow. Catawba County
commissioners have rezoned 2,000 acres along the
highway for business use.
Already the corridor is
one of the fastest-growing residential areas in
the county. Of the 866 new home sites approved in
Catawba County last year, half are located
adjacent to the new road.
It isn't only commuters,
developers, and manufacturers who will benefit
from the new highway link. The quick connection
from the Charlotte area also is likely to bring
more skiers, hikers, furniture shoppers, and fall
foliage admirers to or through Catawba County,
pouring millions into the local economy.
But while the new
transportation link is good news for economic
growth in Catawba County home to 457
manufacturing firms, the third-largest of any
county in the state the area continues to
be regarded as one of the best places in America
to raise a family, start a business, launch a
career, or retire.
Catawba County have a lot going for them,
says Mark Sinclair, who moved his family from
Florida to Hickory 11 years ago. Sinclair left
his position as director of the Orlando Science
Center to direct the Catawba Science Center
because he wanted to raise his two children, then
10 and 8, in a safe place with good schools.
combination of factors make this community a
special match between a good economy and a good
quality of life, Derreberry adds.
Hickory is almost synonymous with furniture.
Sixty percent of the nation's furniture is
produced within a 200-mile radius of Hickory.
Some 200 furniture-related manufacturers employ
nearly 16,000 people. Century Furniture Co., The
Lane Co., Broyhill Furniture Industries, Sherill
Furniture Co., Bassett Furniture Industries and
Southern Furniture are among the county's top 30
employers. They are joined by textile companies
like Shuford Mills, Joan Fabrics Corp., Carolina
Mills, as well as Hickory Springs Manufacturing
which makes foam, springs and mattresses.
Lately, the traditional
industries of furniture, hosiery and textiles
have been supplemented by industries of the
technological age. Catawba County has become the
nation's center for the manufacture of fiber
optics and telecommunications cable. Hickory is
home to Alcatel, the world's largest manufacturer
of telecommunications cable products and the
second largest telephone equipment company. Also,
Siecor Corp., the world's largest independent
manufacturer of fiber optics cable, is located
Recent expansions and
the addition of new incoming companies further
underscore the county's cachet among the business
and industry community. MDI, among the largest
grocery wholesalers in the country, last year
constructed a $65 million, 1 million square foot
facility just north of Hickory to house its
growing business. Centroplastics, an Iowa-based
molded plastic manufacturer, recently opened its
only southeastern operation in the town of
Claremont. And last month a New Jersey furniture
importer and distributor, Collezione Europa,
moved into a 250,000 square foot facility.
The county, which covers
405 square miles, has an estimated population of
131,256, including residents of its eight
municipalities Brookford, Catawba,
Claremont, Conover, Hickory, Long View, Maiden
and Newton. The Hickory Metropolitan Statistical
Area (MSA), composed of Catawba, Alexander, Burke
and Caldwell counties, is corporate headquarters
to 47 firms, each with at least 500 employees and
$500 million in sales.
While 48 percent of the
county's labor force is involved in
manufacturing, well above the national average of
16 percent, the county also maintains a $13
million agricultural industry. Sixty percent of
that comes from the county's 17 Grade A dairy
farms. Piedmont Farms, recognized world wide for
its high quality Jersey cattle, ships cattle to
Columbia, South America and Puerto Rico.
A strong economic base
is only one reason why Reader's Digest
selected Catawba County as one of the 10 best
places in America to raise a family. Working with
the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, the
magazine polled parents across the country to
determine what was most important to them in
choosing a place to live and raise a family. In
addition to economic growth and an affordable
cost of living, these parents listed an absence
of crime, low rates of drug and alcohol abuse,
good public schools, first-rate health care and a
clean environment among their top requirements.
Mark and Mary Ann Turner
moved to Catawba County from Florida five years
ago. Mark Turner is vice president for operations
at Catawba County Memorial Hospital, one of two
outstanding hospitals in the county. Mary Ann is
an award-winning elementary school teacher. Their
children, Joanna, 16 and Nick, 14, attend public
schools and participate in various music and
The Turners say the
schools, sports and church events, as well as the
closeness to larger cities and to the mountains,
make it a great place to live and raise a family.
The area is
centrally located; it's got the mountains,
shopping, and the arts, says Mary Ann
Turner. The climate is wonderful, and with
the change of seasons, it's always beautiful. One
of the most important things to us is that it is
a church-oriented community. There are a lot of
people here who share our values.
Catawba County has a
high quality of medical care for a community of
its size, says Mark Turner. Both Catawba Memorial
Hospital, which is county owned, and the private
Frye Regional Medical Center offer patients care
in many areas, including obstetrics and
neurosurgery. Catawba Memorial is particularly
strong in cancer care, while Frye has an
outstanding heart center. Together they offer 615
hospital beds. Both are also major employers in
has an excellent medical staff with a high ratio
of RNs, says Turner. It's very easy
to recruit quality physicians because this is
such a great place to live.
Medical personnel or manufacturing employers,
school teachers, or retirees, people moving to
Catawba County have no trouble finding a home.
Housing ranges from waterfront estates to
bungalows in historic districts to homes in
planned communities. The median price of a
three-bedroom house is $105,000, lower than the
national average of $110,511.
Linda Powell, 1998
president of the Catawba Valley Association of
Realtors and an agent with Prudential/Hickory
Metro Real Estate, says there is also a steady
condominium market and that local apartment rents
are among the most affordable in the state. There
are 10 nursing homes and/or retirement
communities in the county, as well.
Buying a house in
Catawba County is an excellent investment,
says Powell. Market values here have
steadily increased over the past several years.
Most people enjoy a seven to eight percent return
in three to four years.
Once people come
to Catawba County, they don't seem to want to
leave, says chamber president Derreberry,
who counts himself among that number. Derreberry
moved his family from Ohio three years ago.
We couldn't be
happier here, he says. Maybe it's
because it's such a good place to live that it's
a good place to start your own business.
Entrepreneurs, small business owners, are very
prevalent among the chamber's membership.
Nation's Business Magazine rated
Hickory one of the top small metropolitan areas
in the nation for starting a business in July
1997, calling the city a tiny Titan.
With fewer than 33,000 residents, Hickory was the
smallest of the five cities selected. But it has
an entrepreneurial climate that goes way back in
its history, says Charles Snipes, president of
Bank of Granite, which for many years has been
rated as one of, if not the best, small bank in
The tradition of local
ownership began with the furniture and hosiery
industries, says Snipes. They spawned a host of
small companies which served and complemented
their larger neighbors.
In my 40-plus
years in banking, I've seen hundreds of people
come in here with just an idea on which they've
been willing to risk everything, says
Snipes. Most of them have been
In the 1990s there's
been a new business started for every 100 Hickory
residents, the fifth-highest rate in the state.
Four banks have their headquarters in or near
Hickory, including Bank of Granite, which is the
No. 1 independent bank in the country.
One entrepreneur is
Larry Bowman, who left local coaxial cable maker
CommScope as vice president of operations in 1987
and bought bankrupt satellite-dish maker Prodelin
Corp. He now employs 275.
The political climate in
Catawba is definitely pro-growth, says Scott
Millar, director of the Catawba County Economic
Development Corp. It's a great place to do
business, he says. The county is very
Forward-looking community leaders established
the Economic Development Corp. in 1978 as a
recruiting arm for industry. They realized the
need to diversify the economic base of the county
and to attract industries other than the
traditional powerhouses of textiles and
furniture. Since the late 1970s the EDC has
assisted with 145 business relocations and/or
expansions, improving the county's tax base by
more than $863 million.
City, county and chamber
of commerce leaders also have worked together on
an aggressive expansion of water and sewer lines,
road and highway improvements, and enhancements
to public education. In 1980 the voters approved
mixed drink sales in Conover and Hickory, which
spurred hotel, motel, restaurant, and
entertainment growth in the county.
In 1990 when it was not
common for communities to offer economic
incentives to new businesses, community leaders
put together an aggressive incentive package for
Alcatel. Alcatel invested $40 million in an
expansion of its Claremont facility and has grown
and prospered since.
It was a risky
maneuver, says Millar, but it paid
off. That project really started the use of
incentives across the state.
Community and business
leaders have partnered with the county's schools
and colleges to ensure there is adequate
education and training to maintain a prepared
workforce for the county's manufacturing firms.
With the unemployment rate at 3 percent or
less, we have a challenge to ensure our young
people are work ready and to provide appropriate
employment opportunities to keep them home,
The three Catawba County
school systems Hickory City,
Newton-Conover City, and Catawba County
serve more than 22,000 pupils in 36 schools. The
county also has two colleges: Catawba Valley
Community College, a comprehensive community
college, and Lenoir-Rhyne College, a 102-year-old
liberal arts institution with 1,500 students.
CVCC offers a variety of educational
opportunities, including technical, vocational,
adult and occupational educational programs.
Two-year associate degrees, college transfer
programs, plus various other diplomas and
certificates, including business, engineering,
horticulture, and furniture production design are
We are constantly
developing programs to fill the needs of our
service area, says Dr. Linda Philipps, vice
president of academic and student affairs at
The chamber of commerce
also has responded to the need of area businesses
for more and better prepared employees by
initiating a Workforce Development Program,
intended to increase the number of qualified high
school and college graduates entering the
county's workforce. As part of this program, the
chamber is developing a new public-private
partnership aimed at bringing all workforce
development resources under a common planning
umbrella. It also is coordinating a project aimed
at placing each of the county's 1,400 public
school teachers in a business environment for a
full day to learn from employers the skills and
attitudes future employees need to succeed.
Tourism already is a big business in Catawba
County generating $235.6 million in 1966. More
than 2,000 jobs are directly attributable to the
hospitality industry. Two years ago, the
70,000-square-foot Hickory Metro Trade Center
opened, providing space for meetings, conventions
and trade shows. Visitors also come for races at
the Hickory Motor Speedway and for ball games at
the new L.P. Frans Stadium, home of Hickory's
Class A ball team, the Hickory Crawdads.
The Hickory Motor
Speedway has been in continuous operation for 42
years. Many NASCAR greats got their start there,
including Ned Jarret, Dale Earnhart and Dale
Jarrett. The speedway generates $2.4 million each
year for the local economy.
Minor league baseball
came to Catawba County in 1993. The Crawdads led
the South Atlantic league in attendance during
their first year of play and captured the
imaginations of many residents who became ardent
fans. The team is a Class A affiliate of the
Visitors also come to
water ski, boat, swim or fish on Catawba County's
three lakes Lake Hickory, Lake Lookout
Shoals, and Lake Norman and to visit
historic sites like Murray's Mill. The mill, on
Ball's Creek near the small town of Catawba, is
the one of the nation's last operating grist
mills. Tourists and residents alike enjoy the
natural beauty of the Catawba Valley area, its
many city and county parks and its close
proximity to the North Carolina mountains.
Catawba County combines
a bustling economy with a family-friendly
community atmosphere. It has a diversified
economy, forward-thinking business leaders, and
an overall high quality of life. For the first
time in its history, service jobs are growing
faster than manufacturing jobs, providing a
unique mix for the economy, growing employment
opportunities and more and better services for
It's as close to
perfect as you can get, says Mary Ann