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North Carolina's largest business group proudly serves as the state chamber of commerce

Still Soaring
Statesville rises above the competition to again
be named America's best small city for corporate facilities

By Kevin Brafford

September is perhaps Stateville’s most eagerly awaited month, because it means the annual hot air balloon rally is just around the corner. Traditionally staged the third weekend of the month, the rally is the oldest on the East Coast and has been named by the Southeast Tourism Society as one of the top 20 events in the Southeast. Spectators are treated to blasts of color from the more than 50 huge balloons that fill the skies.

“People put it on their calendar and come year after year,” says T.J. Critz of the Statesville Tourism Development Authority. “It’s a special weekend for a lot of folks.”

But there much that is special about Statesville that keeps calling attention to its quality of life, its well-trained workforce and its attractiveness as a business destination. For the second year in a row, in fact, Site Selection magazine has dubbed Statesville the No. 1 small town in America for corporate facilities, rankings based largely on new plant and expansion announcements.

If you’re looking for trends, this is one. So many good things have been written about the economic and business climate of Statesville and Iredell County that one doesn’t quite know where to begin. We’ll be content to look back over just the past five years:

In 1997, Statesville was one of 10 cities nationwide — among 150 applicants — to be selected as an All-American City;

A year later, the city was placed on the top-10 “best cities for business” list by Business North Carolina magazine;

In the fall 1999 issue of Business Properties magazine, Iredell County was cited for its healthy economy and business friendly access to major interstates.

And now No. 1 in the nation for corporate facilities. Again.

All of these accolades make Danny Hearn’s job that much easier. Hearn is president and CEO of the Greater Statesville Chamber of Commerce and one of the chief duties of his office is to promote and bring recognition to the area, which is home to 122,660 residents, a near 25 percent increase since 1990.

On the inside front cover of the quality of life magazine that the chamber produces annually, Hearn writes that, “Combining the good graces of the South with the proper amount of city savvy, Statesville has character and personality envied by many but enjoyed by few.”

Count Hearn among the lucky ones, and he promises that the words ring true. “It’s a wonderful place to live and work,” he says. “There is so much at our disposal. The air is clean, the streets are safe and the living is easy.”

Greater Statesville’s growing reputation also makes Jeff McKay’s job a little easier — most of the time. He’s the director of economic development at the Greater Statesville Development Corp. (GSDC), which serves Statesville, neighboring Troutman and northern Iredell County. “Being No. 1 two years in a row is nice, because it assures you that you’re doing something right,” he says. “People will see and read about it and say, ‘I wonder what’s going on there.’ It’s some of the best advertising that we can get.

“At the same time, it keeps that fire burning below you, because when you’re No. 1 there’s only one way to go.”

Location and Accessibility

A prime locale helps sell commercial and residential real estate. In that vein it’s difficult to beat Statesville, which describes itself while recruiting new business as “sitting just above Charlotte.”

But having North Carolina’s largest city — and a top national banking center — just 40 minutes away is only one of the city’s geographic plusses. Vibrant Winston-Salem is a neighbor to the east and beautiful Lake Norman, with 520 miles of shoreline, begins in Troutman.

It also helps greatly that Statesville sits near the intersection of interstates 77 and 40, linking the city with significant points both east-west and north-south. “We like to say,” McKay notes, “that you can get on an interstate in Statesville and not hit another red light until you get to Barstow, Calif.”

Further, transportation studies have shown that about 60 percent of the U.S. population lives within a day’s drive of Statesville. “If you look at it geographically from a map, we are about halfway between New York and the Florida beaches,” McKay says.

A road improvement project that’s in the works will accelerate access to the area: Highway 70, the city’s fastest growing industrial corridor, is being widened to four lanes, connecting I-77 to I-85 outside of Salisbury. “It’s a much needed project,” McKay says. “It’ll alleviate some traffic problems and provide a major distribution route for a lot of companies.”

Two international airports, Charlotte-Douglas and Piedmont Triad, are each within an hour’s drive, and Statesville Municipal Airport, a general aviation facility, is just minutes outside the city limits. There’s rail service and nearly three dozen truck carriers that serve the area.

“Our accessibility is one of our biggest strengths,” says McKay. “With the ‘just in time’ approach that companies are taking these days, being able to get things out there quickly is becoming essential to the manufacturing process.

“When companies are looking at setting up operations, there’s naturally an East Coast and West Coast divide. We provide an ideal location for an East Coast network. And with about 250,000 people within a 25-mile radius of Statesville (Iredell County borders nine counties), we have a strong workforce — we’re able to successfully pull from those neighboring towns and communities.”

McKay and Hearn say another plus is that corporate real estate in the area is in abundance; a dozen business and industrial parks offer more than 2,300 acres of land, almost all of which is zoned for light to heavy industrial use, distribution, warehousing and light to heavy manufacturing.

“There’s lots of industrial property here,” McKay says. “We’ve worked just as hard on that as on recruiting business. Without a place to put them, there’s little point in hunting for companies.”

‘This Was the Best Place’

For all of its positives, the area still hasn’t been immune to the recent weakened economy. Nevertheless, the growth figures for the past dozen years are impressive: Since 1989, more than 100 companies have opened new facilities or expanded existing ones.

Some of the more recent growth includes Oregon-based Tube Specialties, a manufacturer of heavy truck tubing, which built an $11 million, 109,000-square-foot facility and employs about 100 people; Rene Composite Materials ($5 million, 56,000 square feet, 60 jobs); Garden Ridge (268,000-square-foot distribution center); and CommScope, a designer, manufacturer and marketer of coaxial, fiber optic and other high-performance electronic cable products that created 150 new jobs with an $35 million expansion.

Among the newest is Plastiflex, which last August relocated its East Coast operations from Whippany, N.J., about 35 miles west of New York, to a 56,000-square-foot facility in Sherrill Industrial Park. The Belgium-based company manufactures hoses for swimming pools and car washes, and provided about 65 new jobs for the area.

“By the time I became involved in the relocation process,” says general manager Stephen Dunn, “we had narrowed our focus pretty much on the Statesville area. We also had looked at Gaston County and Rock Hill, S.C., but felt this was the best place.”

Plastiflex hasn’t been disappointed. “Much of our customer base is located within a 300-mile range of this facility,” Dunn says, “so that’s been a big advantage. And we’ve found a lot of support companies, such as compressor repair, chiller repair and packaging — all kinds of things that we were finding difficult in New Jersey.

“We’ve had great support from a lot of people, and we’ve felt very welcomed. Not only that, but we’ve found Statesville to be a great community to live and work. And that’s important.”  

Manufacturers aren’t the only businesses thriving in the area. Locally owned and operated Piedmont Bank debuted in July 1997 and within 30 months had surpassed $100 million in assets. As of last October, it was the state’s 38th largest bank, showing deposits of $110 million and assets of more than $133 million.

Then there’s agriculture, which remains the No. 1 industry in the county and is among the most lucrative in the state. There are nearly 1,200 farms in the county spanning more than 156,000 acres. While tobacco farms in eastern North Carolina generate more revenue, Iredell County tops the state in sales of cattle, dairy cattle, chickens, hay production and silage corn — and is No. 2 in beef cattle and poultry. In all, it leads to annual sales approaching $100 million.

“It provides a good many number of jobs,” says Ken Vaughn, the director of the Iredell County Cooperative Extension Service, “and still leaves some open space in the countryside that people enjoy.”

Vaughn has worked in agricultural extension for more than 39 years. The charge for him and his staff of 11 is to educate through group seminars, classes and consultations, both at home and over the phone. He also recently was appointed head of a volunteer group that is seeking to preserve the natural beauty of Iredell County.

“Agriculture is part of our heritage here,” he says. “We’ve got three dairies (Jeff Maness, Ben Shelton and Myers Farm) that are milking 1,000 cows each.

“But we’re also trying to be very soil-preservation conscious and improve the soil quality. That’s one of our challenges. Anytime you make it more productive, you also are making it more attractive.”

So important is agriculture to Statesville and Iredell County that a new $8 million livestock show and sale arena is scheduled to be built once funding is secured. Hearn estimates that the facility will draw about 250,000 people to the area each year.

The extension office isn’t the only agency working to develop the workforce. JobLink, sponsored by Iredell County’s Employment Security Commission, aids job seekers and employers alike. Services at the center include job placement assistance, recruitment, information about education and training opportunities, Internet job search, career change guidance, workforce re-entry assistance, and use of an on-site interviewing facility. Helping the ESC staff the center are workers from the Iredell County Department of Social Services, the public school system, Mitchell Community College, N.C. Vocational Rehabilitation and I-Care Inc.

The chamber, naturally, also is heavily involved in workforce development. “That’s one of our central priorities,” says Hearn. “We feel like rather than focusing on attracting a workforce from across the country, we need to recruit people on a regional basis and get them well trained.” In that pursuit, chamber staff and volunteers visit parents to increase awareness about the educational and job opportunities that will be afforded their children once they graduate from high school.

The chamber also contributes to education using other avenues. A speaker’s bureau that brings business and industry leaders to classrooms throughout the school system has been well received. And other initiatives promote interaction between teachers and students through internships and business tours.

“Our versatility is a great asset,” says McKay. “People here are open to new trade and learning new skills. It’s not like we’ve got all one kind of industry, and it’s not like we’ve got a workforce that’s only trained in a particular kind of work.”

Statesville's new civic center in downtown

A Tradition of Education

At the core of higher education in Statesville and Iredell County is Mitchell Community College, which enrolled more than 1,800 full-time equivalent students last fall and annually serves approximately 10,000 adults in continuing education and adult basic literacy, curriculum tracks and worker training programs.

The campus initially opened its doors in 1856 (it was chartered in 1852) as a Presbyterian women’s college, but in 1956 the Mitchell College Foundation was incorporated and the community assumed control of the college through the foundation. MCC officially became the fifty-seventh member of the state’s community college system in 1973 and remains the only private college admitted.

“I tell people that we are the oldest college in the state,” says Carol Johnson, the dean of continuing education. “We come from a tradition of a junior college — someone did that for 17 years here. Once we became a community college, our focus and mission became entirely different.”

The mission today is clear. “We are educating for those in training for business and industry,” Johnson says. “A two-year associate’s degree is workforce preparation, and it’s just as important as doing training on the outside in the actual business and industry.”

Every day is different and exciting for Johnson, thanks in part to an increasingly diverse student population. “We have dislocated workers who have worked in a factory for 30 years who are taking classes,” she says, “and we also have 18- and 19-year-olds who are looking to take advantage of our cost effectiveness.”

There are at least 16 other two- or four-year institutions of higher learning within a 50-mile radius of Statesville — nine community colleges and seven four-year colleges and universities. The most significant of those is Gardner-Webb University, which had called the Davis School of Nursing its home for more than 20 years.

That changed this fall, however, as students are now attending classes in a new 14,588-square-foot facility  — the first real regional campus that has been designed and fully managed by GWU (there are 16 other branch campuses in the Carolinas). The non-residential center features two multimedia classrooms — and eventually all classrooms in the new facility will be equipped for multimedia. The center also is envisioned as a hub for GWU online courses.

Partnerships with the other area colleges and universities make the most of what each of the institutions has to offer. MCC, for example, is a member of the Charlotte Area Educational Consortium, a group of 22 two- and four-year colleges that allows students who can’t find a course that they need at their home institution to take the class at any of the participating institutions at no additional cost. A similar pact is in place for faculty members who need to borrow research materials from the neighboring colleges’ libraries.

Healthy by Choice

The area is served by two hospitals, Iredell Memorial and Davis Regional Medical Center. Both boast sterling reputations.

Iredell Memorial, a not-for-profit facility, first opened its doors in 1954. All 247 of its rooms are private. Its buildings and grounds are owned by Iredell County and leased to a board of trustees comprised of local citizens. The medical staff consists of about 120 physicians representing 24 specialties. An expansion 15 years ago added four patient floors in a new tower, and more recent additions include a building that houses MRI facilities as well as The Women’s Breast Health Center, a mammography and education center. Grants awarded by the Duke Endowment have helped the hospital open a diabetes learning center and an off-site nursing clinic that serves a neighboring homeless shelter.

The hospital prides itself on offering a wide variety of special services, including 24-hour emergency care, a busy home health agency, radiation therapy and a cardiac rehabilitation program, the latter of which is operated at a loss at the hospital’s blessing.

“We don’t want to charge for these services or in any way discourage people from taking advantage of them,” says Arnold Nunnery, the hospital’s president and CEO. “We feel it’s so important for people who have had heart attacks to have supervised activity and guidance with their diet.”

Iredell Memorial is renowned in the area for its annual offering of corporate wellness programs — more than 300 per year — at area businesses. Programs include flu shots, controlling high blood pressure and smoking cessation.

“If there is something we can do as well as or better than the larger medical centers, then we’ll want to do it,” says Nunnery, who notes that the hospital receives no funding from the city or county. “If they can do it more efficiently, we’ll leave those things to them.

“But, for instance, our reputation stands on quality of care. Our nursing care is something we can do better than large facilities because, being smaller, we can be more personal, more individual.”

Davis, which has been in Iredell County since 1920, has 149 beds and draws from 160 physicians who represent 28 specialties. Among the center’s special services are a 24-hour emergency department, intensive/coronary care units, a state-certified cardiac rehabilitation program, sleep diagnostic unit, sports medicine and psychiatric services.

In addition, the center also sponsors its share of community health and wellness programs. Examples include new-parent education and baby wellness, plus support groups for patients with diabetes, arthritis, fibromyalgia, cancer and chronic pain.

Something Out of the Past

As its residents will tell you, once you get to Iredell County there’s really no reason to leave. Statesville’s bustling downtown is lined with historic buildings and specialty shops and restaurants. How historic? Forty-seven of the commercial district’s buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Residential neighborhoods, dating to the early 1800s, offer wide, tree-shaded streets and elegant Victorian homes that look as comfortable as an old pair of shoes feels.

“A lot of visitors say it’s one of the most beautiful and unique downtowns that they’ve ever seen,” says Critz of the tourism authority. “Our residential neighborhoods really are something out of the past.”

It only takes a few minutes to drive to Lake Norman, the state’s largest — and considered by many the prettiest — man-made lake. The sailing and windsurfing are good and the fishing’s even better. If you’re looking for more public beaches, camping and picnic areas and nature trails, there’s Duke Power State Park, located on the shores of Lake Norman in Troutman. In all, the Statesville area boasts more than 175 acres of public parks.

If you’re looking to make a roadtrip, Charlotte offers plenty. The Queen City is home to big-league sports in the pro football Panthers and the pro basketball Hornets. Just down the road from there is Lowe’s Motor Speedway, home of NASCAR Winston Cup races each May and October.

To get your fill of stock car racing, though, doesn’t mean having to leave the area. Iredell County alone is home to more than 40 Winston Cup and Busch Series teams, and it wouldn’t be all that uncommon during a given day to run into the likes of noted drivers Bill Elliott, Jimmy Spencer, Ricky Craven, Casey Atwood and Todd Bodine.

Just like the city and county leaders, chances are they’ll be smiling too. And why not? “We think it’s the best place in the state to live and work,” says Johnson of Mitchell Community College. “We’ve got interstate access, we’ve got Lake Norman and we’re close to the big cities, yet this still has a semi-small town feel. You couldn’t ask for more.”

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