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Word's Getting Out on Montgomery County Growth

Right: Jack Jordan of Jordan Lumber Co., a long-time stalwart of Montgomery County business. Photo by Dan Crawford

By Suzanne Fischer

Talk to some folks in Montgomery County and the phrase “best kept secret in North Carolina” is likely to pop up in conversation again and again. But they know, probably better than most of us, that the cat's just about out of the bag.

Located at the geographic center of the state about an hour east of Charlotte and south of Greensboro, Montgomery County made extraordinary strides last year which have earned the area and its leaders kudos from economic developers across North Carolina. In March, for instance, Montgomery announced the biggest industrial development news in the county's history. Homanit, a manufacturer of fiberboard used in furniture and cars, selected Montgomery over 13 other sites in four states as the home for the company's first facility outside Germany. Homanit plans to invest $90 million and create 150 new jobs within the next two years.

The story of Homanit's decision is in large part one of sheer determination on the part of local and state officials with just the tiniest dash of luck thrown in.

About 15 months ago, Bob Jordan, president of Jordan Lumber and Supply and a former lieutenant governor, was approached by a salesperson who mentioned that the German company was looking for a site in the United States. After some talks with Jordan and others in the county, Homanit CEO Gunter Heyen, an avid mountain biker, decided to make a stop in North Carolina on his way to a bike race in Canada.

It didn't hurt to alert Heyen to the many bike trails snaking throughout the county's mountainous region, but the key factors in his decision were the area's proximity to the International Home Furnishings Market in High Point and to automobile assembly plants in South Carolina and Tennessee. Other attractions were a guarantee of the woodchips necessary to make fiberboard — from Jordan Lumber, next to which Homanit will locate — and the county's high quality of life. Also, as part of the agreement, Homanit will receive an estimated $8.4 million in state income tax credits and grants, $2.5 million of which will go to the county to meet the company's infrastructure needs. Under the state's William S. Lee Quality Jobs and Business Expansion Act, Homanit also will qualify for tax credits for creating jobs, investments in equipment and for worker training that could total $5.9 million.

“Frankly, I wasn't sure we'd ever land an industry the size of Homanit,” Jordan admits, “but obviously I'm tickled to death that we did. I can't say enough about (Montgomery County Economic Development Corp. director) Judy Stevens and all the other key players, like the Department of Commerce, for getting this done. We're all thrilled that Homanit is taking a product grown right here in the county and maximizing its value while creating jobs. It's a good marriage.”

Like many other businesses in the county, Homanit is family-owned and operated. Fritz Homann is the fourth-generation managing director of the company.

Just weeks after the Homanit news, Montgomery County announced an additional three major projects:

u Mountaire Farms of N.C. plans to build a $13 million to $14 million feed mill complex which will employ about 60 people once completed. The mill will be located near Candor, in the eastern part of the county. Hourly wages are expected to run from $9 to $12 at the mill, and drivers will earn in the low $30,000s on average.

u Klaussner Furniture Industries will expand its Realistic Furniture Industries plant, also near Candor. The $5 million project calls for an additional 90,000 square feet and 300 workers.

u MidAtlantic Building Systems, a startup company, opened a $5 million plant for building high-end stick-built modular homes. The plant currently employs about 65 people but expects to hire up to an additional 55 workers. Thomas Townsend, one of the company's two owners, says they looked at “many, many counties” before deciding on Montgomery.

“For us the big selling points were the location near the interstate, the workforce, Judy Stevens and the way she worked so well with us, and the way the town and county helped with getting adequate water and sewer systems to us,” Townsend says.

These points, and others, are echoed by business and county leaders as key ingredients to industrial recruitment.

“The new, official designation of 220 South as Interstate 73/74 is incredibly helpful,” Judy Stevens says. “Transportation is listed as one of the top criteria to economic development. The interstate designation gives more prestige, makes us better connected.”

The intersection of Interstate 73/74 and east-west N.C. Highway 24/27 near the town of Biscoe provides convenient access to all the national highway systems; plus the county is serviced by most trucking companies and overnight carriers.

Rail service available from Aberdeen Carolina & Western Railway, with connections to Norfolk Southern and CSX, serves many industries in the county and has service available for new industry.

Another factor in recruiting industries is the availability of buildings to house them. In the mid-1980s Biscoe developed its first industrial park, a 100-acre site that's nearly filled. Recently the town purchased 50 acres of rural land on which to develop a second park.

Doug Byrd, director of national and international business and industry for the N.C. Department of Commerce, suggested that the county consider starting a shell building program. Spearheaded by the Montgomery County Committee of 100 — a group of area leaders formed to support and complement economic development — an effort was begun to create a shell building. The committee, county, the Town of Biscoe, local banks and an area builder collaborated in the development of the shell building.

“We can use a building like this to entice people to come and look at the county,” explains Lewis Dorsett, chairman of the Committee of 100. “Once we draw them in we can show them that we have a tremendous amount to sell.”

Indeed, the first shell building, in Biscoe, was built and sold in record time and allowed a local industry, Pine Hosiery Mill of Star, to expand its operations.

“Over 80 percent of businesses want an existing building,” Dorsett says. “When they're ready to move or expand they want to act quickly, so we felt it was important to provide them with that opportunity.”

The success of the first shell building has spawned a second venture, a 30,000-square-foot metal building in the new Troy industrial park. In an arrangement like that in Biscoe, the town will donate the land, local banks will provide financing, the builder will put in 25 percent of the total cost and the Committee of 100 will make up the difference.

“It's such a great collaborative effort,” Stevens says, “and that speaks a lot for the county.”

The spirit of collaboration runs deep in Montgomery County, which is part of the 12-county Piedmont Triad Regional Partnership. The Committee of 100 is an excellent example of such cooperation, as is its work with county government, the Economic Development Corporation, which was formed in 1989, and the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber, which works primarily with existing businesses and industries in the county, sponsors an annual meeting to honor the business of the year, a golf tournament that's free to members, a youth leadership program and Leadership Montgomery.

The nine-month program has graduated five classes of the county's business, nonprofit and government leaders — more than 100 people. The program consists of an orientation and overnight retreat, seminars on leadership topics, and days spent touring different sectors of the community.

“We think — and we've been told by participants — that it's an excellent program,” says chamber Chairman Sam Johnson. “It's a good way to make them aware of county resources and challenges, and to plan ways to improve the county as a whole. Because what's good for the county is good for business.”

In addition to new industry, the chamber hopes to recruit more retail shops and restaurants to the county. Housing ranks as another top item on the county's wish list.

“We have a deficiency of housing in the county and one of the Committee of 100's driving forces is remedying that,” Lewis Dorsett says. “We want people to be able to find a place to live here, rather than commute from neighboring counties.” He explains that there are two promising housing-oriented projects in the works, and, according to Ralph Bostic, vice chairman of the county commissioners, expansions in the county's water system should promote housing development. Another stride in housing has come from the Troy Housing Authority, which instituted and oversees an initiative to develop the Peabody Complex — an abandoned middle school in Troy — into affordable apartments.

The Montgomery Community Resource Team, another example of collaboration, is comprised of a broad spectrum of government officials, law enforcement officers, health and human services employees and teachers and school administrators. Recently recognized by state legislators for its innovative ideas to help meet the needs of the county's citizens, the group also published a large directory of resources available to Montgomery residents for everything from daycare to help for substance abuse.

“It's been a concerted effort to pull together the resources of the community so that we don't duplicate services and we don't leave any holes,” says Montgomery Schools Superintendent Harold Brewer, a member of the team. “This way we get the maximum benefit from our resources and create as seamless a system as possible.”

Boosters in the best sense, Montgomery citizens and officials commit themselves to the overall improvement of their county with dedication, sincerity and humor. In a good-natured example of “what goes around comes around,” the chair of one committee is likely to be called to serve on several other boards — by the people who are serving on his.

“We have a lot of opportunities for people to take an active, proactive role and to create the kind of place we want to live in,” Dorsett says.

Golden Opportunity

With its central location, Montgomery County offers the best of nearly all North Carolina's varied geography. Sandy coastal plains make up the easternmost part of the county, and the Piedmont's gently rolling, pine-dotted hills mark the county's center. But drive further west and you'll begin to ascend the Uwharrie Mountains, thought to be America's oldest mountain range. Remnants of an ancient chain of island volcanoes at the edge of an ocean that no longer exists, the mountains' peaks once exceeded 10,000 feet. Today, after 600 million years of erosion, their tallest point reaches 1,000 feet, making them ideal for hiking and mountain biking.

The Uwharrie National Forest, covering some 50,000 acres in Montgomery and neighboring Randolph and Davidson counties, contains trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Campsites and areas for hunting and fishing are located throughout the forest. Wildlife abounds; careful visitors can spot deer, quail, rabbits, hawks and bald eagles.

The county makes up part of the Uwharrie Lakes region, a seven-county area also known as North Carolina's Central Park. Montgomery's western border is delineated by Badin Lake and Lake Tillery, both recreation havens for boaters, anglers and swimmers with shorelines popular among campers and hikers. The Badin Lake trail, covered in cedars, mosses and wildflowers, also shows evidence of the area's gold-mining past now immortalized in the county's motto: “Montgomery County — a golden opportunity.”

The county, N.C. Department of Transportation, USDA Forest Service and Yadkin-Pee Dee Lakes Project, among others, have developed a wealth of maps of scenic driving routes, hiking and biking trails, and river trails for canoeing and tubing, along with notes about historic points along the way.

Among these sites is the Town Creek Indian Mound in Mt. Gilead, near the county's southwest corner. In about 1200 A.D., Indians of the Pee Dee culture established a political and ceremonial center on a bluff overlooking the junction of Town Creek and the Little River. In 1937, excavators discovered the site, and the property was listed on the historic register in 1955. Reconstruction of the mound, two temples, a burial hut and the surrounding stockade was completed in the 1960s. Today, the site's visitor center contains interpretive exhibits and audiovisual programs for travelers and groups of schoolchildren on field trips.

And then there's golf. Located just 30 minutes from the golf mecca of Pinehurst, Montgomery county also has the right to claim some golfing fame of its own. In July 1992, the Old North State Club at Uwharrie Point opened its Tom Fazio-designed course to rave reviews. Rated among the top private courses in America by Golf Digest and Golf Week, The Old North State Club has also been ranked the No. 2 golf course in the state for four years running by North Carolina magazine's prestigious golf panel.

Uwharrie Point, an exclusive housing community, is nestled on a wooded peninsula that extends into Badin Lake. With only 630 properties on 1,000 acres, residents enjoy private, lush lots and carefully preserved shorelines and wooded areas.

“The original plan was to create a retreat getaway with a couple of golf courses, a marina and some small cabins,” explains Mike Norton, Uwharrie Point's marketing director. “But we readjusted our thinking when we saw how many people were interested in living here full time. With the benefit of telecommuting and the increasingly shorter drive to Charlotte, people are able to live here and continue working where they have been.”

Fully half of Uwharrie Point's residents live there full-time; for others the community is a vacation or weekend getaway and the site of a second or third home. Amenities, in addition to world-class golfing, include a clubhouse overlooking the lake and the 18th fairway, an onsite marina with wet slips and dry storage, a tennis center and activities facility with two pools and a fitness area. Badin Lake also is perfect for fishing, boating, water-skiing and swimming.

Montgomery County's towns provide sightseeing opportunities of their own and a chance to stroll quaint downtown streets and country byways. The towns are Star, officially designated by the N.C. Geodetical Society as the exact center of the state; Candor, the Peach Capital; Biscoe, home of North Carolina's first chartered public high school; Mt. Gilead, celebrating its centennial this year; and Troy, the county seat with its historic courthouse. Each has its own sense of community pride evidenced by festivals and parades, but all work together to help expand the opportunities county-wide.

“I think that's one of the core things that's happening around here,” says Jordan of Jordan's Lumber. “That old competition among the towns is dying. What's good for Biscoe is good for Troy is good for Star and so on.”

The number of businesses that have called Montgomery home for at least a half a century serves as testimony to the quality of life and opportunities there. Companies like Jordan Lumber, Capel Rugs, Clayson Knitting, Montgomery Hosiery and Foundry Service have each been in business 50 years or more. Several of them have been passed down from father to sons to grandchildren.

Take Capel Rugs, for instance. With 450 workers and recognition as Mont-gomery's “Industry of the Year” last year, Capel Rugs is one of the largest employers in the county. And its business and community-minded philosophy has been carried out by three generations of family members committed to living and working in Montgomery.

“My father was born and died in the same house,” says Jesse S. Capel, a vice president of the business. Capel's father started the company and now Jesse and brothers Aaron and A. Leon carry on the tradition. Located in Troy, Capel manufactures braided rugs and imports carpets from all over the world. Primarily a supplier to the trade, the company owns outlet stores in North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina. Most of its rugs, however, are sold through 8,000 stores nationwide and internationally. Here at home, all the rugs in the Bob Timberlake collection are made by Capel.

And the outlet in Troy has even become something of a tourist draw. “People have planned their vacations around stopping here to buy a rug,” Capel says.

Gary McRae, CEO of McRae Industries, explains the diversified nature of his company, which his father started in 1959: “My father, who died three years ago, was an entrepreneur from the word go.” When their children's shoe manufacturing business “frankly didn't do so well,” the company bid on some government jobs making footwear for the military during Vietnam. As that business took off, the company decided to automate some of its data collection — a project which has since turned into a successful division that manufactures bar code reading equipment. McRae Office Solutions distributes, services and installs office equipment, and Rae-Print does commercial printing. Total sales for the company, whose stock is traded on the American Stock Exchange, are around $60 million, and it employs 250 to 300 people in Montgomery County.

Clayson Knitting, another granddaddy of Montgomery's business and industry community, opened in 1931 when its founder, C.V. Richardson, received seven knitting machines from a cash-poor debtor. Joe Richardson, C.V.'s son, is now CEO of the company which also employs his brothers John and Vance, his children Charlie and Joann, his niece, Christian and about 800 other people. About 470 work in the Star facility, the remainder in Robeson County.

Richardson takes pride in the fact that the business remains family-owned. “We all work together and we even mostly get along,” he says with a chuckle.

The company manufactures socks, which are shipped to all the major chain stores in the country. Although Richardson says work has been up and down, as is the case at many textile companies, this year brought good business. New machines have allowed the company to increase production and one, a still-experimental piece of equipment that will close the sock toes, will speed the process even more.

First Bank, which got its start as Bank of Montgomery in 1934, remains true to its motto “We have our roots where others have branches.” For many years the bank had just two branches; today, it has spread to 14 counties with 34 branches and another three on the drawing board. Total assets exceed $560 million, and First Bank ranks 14th in size of all the banks in the state.

“Even as we grow, we strive to stay true to the community-oriented atmosphere that has made us who we are now,” says bank President and CEO Jimmy Garner, now in his 31st year with the bank.

First Bank employs about 250 people in its branches and operations center and works to keep its bank managers in the areas in which they were hired, a fairly unusual situation in the banking industry.

“This way, once you get to know us, you don't have to tell your life story every time you come in,” Garner says, laughing.

The bank plays a leading role in many community and civic events, “not just from a banking standpoint but because we're truly interested in our community,” says Garner, who still lives on land his grandfather owned.

Bob Jordan, whose father started Jordan Lumber and Supply 60 years ago, now presides over the company and works closely there with his brother, nephew and son. Located in Mt. Gilead, the company employs 330 people on-site and another 150 or so on logging crews off-site.

“In the mid 50s we were the smallest of five lumber companies in the county,” Jordan explains. “Since then we've continued to reinvest in the company and new technology and we've become one of the largest independent pine manufacturing companies in the country.”

Over the years Jordan Lumber has carefully blended in new technologies — lasers, x-rays, computers and other scanning equipment — with traditional practices. Doing so has allowed the company to speed production processes and make lumber from trees that in the past would have been too small to use. Improved civiculture and disease management techniques minimize losses, allowing the company and other landowners to grow more trees on less land.

“This is the challenge, to grow more timber on increasingly smaller amounts of land. Because to make the county grow, for economic development, we also need to build houses, roads, stores and industry. And all these things take up space,“ Jordan says. “And this area is part of the Central Park of North Carolina. We've got to make the wood industry and the national forests live side by side. But the beauty of it is we can make it work. It's not easy, but it can be done, and done in a way that is not offensive.”

If the county's forestlands enhance the quality of life and recreation in the area and provide raw materials for some of the local businesses, they are also a source of some misunderstanding that Judy Stevens is determined to change.

She pulls out a map of the state and points to Montgomery County. “See how the map makes it look like almost the whole county is designated as national forest?” Indeed a thick, green line nearly surrounds the county. “Well, I know the Uwharrie Forest is an asset to the county, but the map is misleading,” Stevens explains. “It gives people the impression that we have so much national forest that we don't have room for industry, and that's clearly not the case. I've asked DOT to change that to reflect the actual amount of forest lands here.”

Levels of Learning

Public School Superintendent Harold Brewer was born in the Montgomery County, lived here until he was 12 and returned in 1996 as superintendent. And he couldn't be happier.

“I've lived all around the state and there's nowhere I'd rather be,” he says. “It's got the quality of life and accessibility to everything you'd need.”

The school system, comprised of four elementary schools with a fifth under construction, two middle schools, two high schools and one alternate school, boasts something many larger school systems can't: fully air-conditioned classrooms. But, even more importantly, the schools and their staff work for the success of every student, every day.

One of the system's recent challenges has been the influx of international students of Hispanic and Laotian backgrounds. Out of those 800 students, two-thirds receive instruction in English as a second language.

“They're doing very well as a whole,” Brewer explains. “They're studious, committed to learning and receive great support from their parents.”

The school system participates in the overall well-being of its students by collaborating with First Health Montgomery Hospital to provide school-based health services and a dental clinic.

“This demonstrates that wellness and health also contribute to better learning,” Brewer explains.

The county also actively participates in Gov. Jim Hunt's early childhood initiative, Smart Start. The Montgomery County Partnership, headed up by Executive Director Deborah S. Musika, plans and implements Smart Start activities and administers the program's funding, which the county began receiving in the fall of 1998. Some of the many recent initiatives include planning for a child care resource and referral program, community outreach to local families, comprehensive screenings, nutrition training for child care providers, and a child passenger safety program.

Montgomery Community College, too, stands as a source of pride in the county. The college offers degree, certificate and diploma programs; degrees that transfer to four-year institutions; continuing education courses; and technical training and workforce development.

“There are just a wide gamut of opportunities,” says Mary Kirk, president of the college since May 1. “For some it's a bridge to further education, for others it's where they want to go to learn a skill and get a job.”

The college's Business, Industry, and Technology Resource center, housed in a 44,800-square-foot facility, is dedicated to helping train employees both on site and at the workplace. With an electronic library; an interactive classroom wired to transmit and receive real-time voice, video and data; and a multipurpose room that can accommodate 400 people, the center is uniquely positioned for workforce development.

Kirk offers this example of the way the college serves local business and industry. A small business owner recently purchased a new, unfamiliar software package. Within a few weeks, the college designed a training course for the company's employees to get them up and running.

The curriculum of degree programs also is often tailored to the needs of the area. For example, the college offers a two-year forestry program —ideal for students who have grown up near and hope to remain by the Uwharrie National Forest — and is in the process of developing a park ranger course of study. Pottery also goes back many generations in the area, and the college offers a two-year program for training aspiring potters. An on-site day care center with a strong Smart Start partnership provides an excellent learning environment for children and the college's education students alike.

Montgomery Community College also works in partnership with the school system. Recently a high school diploma program was approved and beginning this month adults can earn a diploma at the community college.

“I've only been here a short time, but I'm already excited over what's possible here. Plus, the people are warm and friendly,” Kirk raves. “You can throw out ideas or brainstorm at a meeting and everyone is very receptive. It's like a breath of fresh air.”

Healthy Living

“Five years ago, health care in this county was in poor shape,” Stevens says as she pulls up in front of a gleaming new addition to the county's hospital. “There were only two doctors then, but now we've got doctors offices in every town.”

In the early 1980s, in response to some government changes in Medicare, Montgomery Memorial Hospital started to falter 30 years after the community raised funds to build the facility. In one six-month period in 1988, the hospital lost 50 percent of its medical staff.

“Thankfully, the county heard our cry for financial assistance, and they put us in their budget for five or six years,” explains Kerry Hensley, vice president of the hospital. “Had it not been for that, we probably wouldn't be here today. But that really demonstrated the communities' desire to keep their hospital.”

The added money allowed the hospital to undertake a renovation project that increased outpatient services and its long-term care facility and supported 24-hour in-house emergency physician coverage. These changes and others brought the hospital back to operating in the black, albeit just barely. Once it was on relatively sound financial footing, it merged with Moore Regional Hospital and changed its name to FirstHealth Montgomery Memorial Hospital.

Today the hospital has 37 beds in acute care and 51 in long-term care and offers access to physicians specializing in family practice, internal medicine, pediatrics, ob-gyn, orthopedics, ear-nose-throat, gastroenterology, neurology, surgery, endocrinology and psychiatry. The hospital also operates transport and EMS services, collaborates with the schools on school-based clinics, and operates health and fitness centers.

“We really go beyond traditional patient-in-a-hospital setting,” Hensley says. “We go into the community and see what the needs are and how we can help people learn to help themselves, removing barriers to wellness.”

Recently, the hospital received a $5 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation over three years to help the community organize and promote health and wellness. The Community Voices initiative, as the program is called, is a joint effort between Montgomery, Hoke and Moore counties and also received funding from the Duke Endowment.

In serving the business community, FirstHealth runs a business health service which offers programs for injury diagnosis, treatment and workers' compensation; industrial rehabilitation; physicals and screenings; and employee assistance.

Another presence in the medical community, Stanly Memorial Hospital, operates a facility in Troy and one in Mt. Gilead. In addition, some residents in the western part of Montgomery travel to neighboring Albemarle in Stanly County for treatment.

As the county mobilizes for continued economic development, officials work for growth without the growing pains and expansion that leaves no one out of the process.

“As recruitment brings more and more diverse industry to the county, we'll be able to keep more of our young people here, which is nothing but good for us,” says Ron Reynolds, chairman of the Economic Development Corporation. “I'd like my three young boys to be able to stay in the county.”

Suzanne Fischer can be reached at sfischer@nccbi.org or at 919-836-1412.

COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL. This article first appeared in the January 2000 issue of North Carolina Magazine.

 

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