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Community Profile


Harnett County is emerging 
from economic adversity 
stronger and smarter because
everyone joined hands

Above right: With about 4,000 students, Campbell University is second only to Baylor as the largest Baptist supported university in the nation and second only to Duke in size among private universities in North Carolina.
Right: A crystalline structure that rises 150 feet and stretches for more than a mile along the Cape Fear River is a major attraction at Raven Rock State Park.

Learn More:
Campbell Grows in Size, Stature
Schools, Industry Develop Partnerships

By Ned Cline

When economic adversity began casting a darkening shadow across Harnett County a few years back, county leaders quickly designed and built a self-help engine to pump in more sunshine. Things are brighter now, and even more light is on the horizon.

“We just decided we could deal with our problems,” says Johnson Tilghman, chair of the relatively new cooperative economic enterprise known as Harnett Forward Together Committee (HFTC). “We determined that we could help ourselves by working together. That’s what our name means — we mean what it says, working together. We are rebuilding our industrial base to meet current needs. We’ve been working diligently because we needed to get things done. And we’re a working organization, not just a talking one.”

Tilghman, a semi-retired attorney and noted developer with a reputation as a no nonsense straight shooter with a genuine interest in making his community aggressive and progressive in economic enhancements, heads the 100-plus member HFTC that is growing just as the county is. The volunteer committee last year added 17 new business or service industry representatives who want to help spread the word about advantages of living and working in Harnett. The organization’s carefully crafted mission is to stimulate, encourage, support and promote the economic development of the county for all its citizens.

It is a mission that is being accomplished. Since formation of HFTC two years ago as an arm of the Harnett Economic Development Commission, the county has begun developing three industrial parks, all certified by the N.C. Department of Commerce. Each of the parks will have available water and sewer services and other amenities by springtime this year and one will have a branch of the county’s community college located inside its boundaries.

Edgerton Industrial Park Phase 1 is a 47-acre tract and Phase II is 90 acres, both near the county’s largest town of Dunn and close to Interstate 95. Western Harnett Industrial Park has 250 acres of developable land adjacent to upgraded NC Highway 87. The park is in a rolling and mostly undeveloped part of the county closest to Ft. Bragg. The military base is planning a housing development of up to 1,500 homes near the park location.

“All this is part of the blueprint that we are following,” Tilghman says. “We have a sustained commitment to economic development. Our influence and impact is growing. And our local government (county commissioners) is absolutely supportive of what is happening. We’ve got a lot going for us with ample natural resources including an abundant water supply, a reliable workforce and determination to succeed. I’m very upbeat about where we are and where we are going.”

The man who helped draft the county’s economic blueprint is equally optimistic. Bob Leak, former industrial recruiter for the N.C. Commerce Department and now a private economic consultant, credits Harnett leaders for having true grit for action. “Harnett is very serious about getting the county ready to accommodate good economic growth,” Leak says. “The county is well located directly between the urban centers of Raleigh/Durham and Fayetteville. Growth is coming from both directions and the county is taking the right steps to manage it. Harnett is the logical place to capture economic growth. The county’s leadership has been very aggressive in moving forward. I predict the county will be rewarded with a new tax base and job creation in the near future.”

Leak’s company provided Harnett with the plan of action in March 2001. That plan, calling for a public commitment to finance programs to aid economic development and strategically locate industrial parks, was developed following a loss of more than 3,000 textile jobs, most of them at the Swift Denim plant in Erwin and Champion Products in Dunn, both in the southern end of the county.

Dunn attorney Tilghman Pope, chair of the Harnett Economic Development Commission, labels the Leak study the community’s call to action. “Over the last two years of economic downturn, Harnett (by using the Leak study) has been setting the table for an economic upturn,” Pope says. “We now have in place the products and services that new industries are seeking. We feel positioning ourselves by spending time, money, and resources to have things in place ideally situate us. We are now on the radar screen of industrial prospects.”

Far Away, Yet Nearby

Harnett is a county of some 96,500 people and 600 square miles, sandwiched between Raleigh and Fayetteville, and offers amenities found in both the Piedmont and Coastal regions of the state. It has historically been considered isolated and rural, a fact that has been turned into a positive for a new promotional slogan used on industrial recruitment documents.

“We have all the benefits of being in the middle of nowhere without actually being there,” says Lee Anne Nance, executive director of the Harnett Economic Development Commission, quoting from promotional material. “Our location to so many urban places is really a great asset. We have affordability to go with proximity. We have the advantages of rural living and lifestyles, but are nearby so much of what people want for their families.”

The county, formed in 1855 and named for eminent Revolutionary War patriot Cornelius Harnett, is quietly yet rapidly growing in population as newcomers realize the virtues of available, reasonably priced land, taxes and lifestyles that allow for working in nearby counties. Harnett is less than an hour from major urban centers of Raleigh and the Research Triangle Park, the Centennial Campus at N.C. State University, and less than 30 minutes from the military complex in Cumberland County. The southern part of the county is within eight miles of two major interstates (I-95 and I-40) and other areas are adjacent to the improved four-lane Highway 87 stretching from Fayetteville to Sanford. To the north, the town of Angier is just over the line from Wake County and Raleigh.

Harnett County’s location also means that you can get from there to the state’s beaches in about the time it takes for a leisurely lunch and to the mountains in the time it takes for a round of golf.

This drawing card has resulted in a 35 percent increase in population in the county in the last 10 years, higher in the northern section. In the decade of the 1990s, Harnett was the eighth fastest growing county in the state.

The county’s economic and industrial leadership now seeks to transform the residential population growth into increased employment. Because of textile losses, the county’s unemployment hovers around seven percent, down a point from a year ago. Sixty percent of the county’s workforce is employed outside the county. For industrial prospects, however, this translates into a readily available labor pool anxious to work near their homes.

“We are something of an unsung song with a lot of hidden treasures,” Nance says. “We have not done a very good job of telling our story until now. But our committee (HFTC) is showing the unified effort in development in the move toward unity across the county. The troubled (economic) times have resulted in people positively working together.

“It would have been easy to just pull back when hard times hit,” Nance adds, “but that didn’t happen. Our county’s leaders, including government, have been very aggressive, realizing that efforts and costs today will pay dividends later. We are making the investment in word and deed.”

The county has committed some $450,000 a year for economic development efforts, with $80,000 strictly for marketing Harnett’s advantages including availability of land, infrastructure and willing workers. County commissioners have allocated $5 per county resident of tax funds for industrial recruitment this year.

Abundant Natural Resources

Among the marketing tools is the high caliber of Central Carolina Community College, with the new branch inside the industrial park, quality and expansion of public schools, the presence of Campbell University with an earned reputation of excellence, geographic location and rural lifestyles.

“When we say we have a pro-business attitude, we really mean it,” Nance says. “We are working together to make it happen. We want to make it easy to come here and start a business and hope we can show that coming here to open a business is a pleasure.”

Signs are that outsiders are hearing the call. The county’s economic development commission’s up-to-date web site is receiving up to 1,500 hits a day following marketing efforts in multiple publications across the state. These inquiries have come from across the nation, Canada and Europe.

“We have made major strides in the last two years,” Harnett County Manager Neil Emory notes. “The commitment of our public officials is there. The political makeup of county commissioners hasn’t mattered; they’re all supportive. We are positioning ourselves the right way. We just need to turn around the out-migration of the labor force. We are already seeing some positive changes in this area with companies moving here from more crowded counties nearby.”

Among Harnett’s natural resource assets is the Cape Fear River, a water supply that would make some counties wet with envy. The river allows Harnett to serve its entire area and have ample supplies of water left over to sell to other areas. “This is a major asset,” Emory says.

Rodney Tart, the county’s public utilities director, is even more emphatic. “We will never have to turn down a project because of (a shortage of) water and sewer,” he notes.

Jesse Alphin, a savvy retired and personable Harnett businessman and former county commissioner, credits visionary leadership for the area’s potential. “We’ve just always done the basic things to help our people,” Alphin says. “We have county leaders with the foresight to look at needs and act on them. The Cape Fear is a major blessing and has helped us get poised for growth. We’ve always been conservative but progressive. We’re in a very positive position to attract businesses with our livability and quality labor force.”

Jim Randolph, chair of the Western Harnett Industrial Park, echoes that sentiment. “We’ve got land and space for growth and are fortunate enough to have 250 available acres along the upgraded Highway 87 corridor,” he says. “With the new industrial sites, the community college inside this site, we can tailor education and job training for whatever is needed. I don’t know of another industrial park in the state that will have a community college location so convenient to industry. We have all the services needed for new commercial development.”

Harnett County has produced three influential statewide elected officials in the last three decades, each of whom offer positive words on the county’s history and future.

Robert B. Morgan, former state attorney general and U.S. senator, now practices law in the county seat of Lillington. “The future is good,” Morgan says. “We will pick up from the bad times. People here can do that.”

N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall calls her home county an “undiscovered gem” with good, hardworking people who are willing to step forward and get things done. “We are seeing the wisdom of working together,” Marshall says. “People who know about the county like it and appreciate what it can offer.”

N.C. Congressman Bob Etheridge, a former state school superintendent, is the most effusive in his praise for Harnett. “I’ve been privileged over 40 years of living in the county to see firsthand the growth and its plans for the future,” Etheridge says. “Harnett has a wealth of treasures to share with North Carolina and is working toward a bright and successful future. Business, government and community leaders are working together to plan for that future and make it a reality. The fruits of these labors are already evident with the three new certified industrial sites ripe for business development. But far and away the best resource that Harnett has to offer is its people, hardworking, honest, decent folks. They are willing to go the extra mile to make their communities and their state a better place.”

Harnett has benefited from Etheridge’s seat in Congress. He has helped secure federal funds for upgrading and enlarging the local airport that can now accommodate corporate aircraft. The Raleigh-Durham airport is an hour away.

NCCBI member Doyle Hardison, vice president of marketing and customer service for South River Electric Membership Corp., has a ready list of assets he says will benefit new business and industry in Harnett. The advantages, he feels, include links to two major metro areas, dual interstate highways, community college and Campbell University as well as public schools, rural lifestyles and capable labor pool.

New Industries, Old Values

Brad Adams, editor of the family-owned Dunn Daily Record, doesn’t mince words on positive prospects for the county. “I could not be more optimistic about the county’s prospects for growth,” Adams says. “When the economy was in a stupor, Harnett leaders were busy formulating and carrying out plans to attract industry. County commission chairman Teddy Byrd and other commissioners had the guts to invest in economic development despite a tight budget. Municipal leaders in the county have also signed on. Those efforts are paying off with the addition of the new industrial parks that only add to our already impressive list of assets.”

County commissioners recently opened a new $20 million governmental complex outside Lillington’s downtown. The former courthouse in the center of the city has been sold for $700,000, but the new owner hasn’t announced his plans for another use.

Dunn, adjacent to I-95 is the county’s largest town, but Lillington to the northwest is the county seat. Erwin, once the center of textile manufacturing, lies close to Dunn and Buies Creek with Campbell University sitting between the three towns. The county’s smallest incorporated town is Coats, east of Buies Creek.

The county tax rate is 76 cents for each $100 property valuation. Most of the towns have lower rates. Dunn’s tax rate is 46 cents. The western part of the county that is most primed for economic growth has no town limits, so the only tax cost is the county’s rate. The county also has economic incentives available for new or expanding industries.

And while the western section of the county is getting the most attention at present, leaders in Dunn to the south aren’t coasting and, in fact, have added some new economic opportunities since the mills began closing. One of the largest new enterprises is the grocery chain Food Lion’s new distribution center (left) that provides jobs for 760 workers. That center chose Dunn because of easy access to major highways.

The former Swift denim plant in Erwin has been sold and the new owner is progressing with subleasing the facility. Another former textile site is on the market.

The county’s largest manufacturing plant, Morganite Inc., which produces carbon brushes, is in Dunn with a labor force of some 800. Among the thriving homegrown industries in the county is Godwin Manufacturing Co. in Dunn that provides jobs for more than 175 workers. The company, founded in 1966, is the largest manufacturer of heavy-duty truck bodies on the East Coast and has contracts with multiple municipalities and industries nationwide for truck bodies and hydraulics gear. Leaders in the county often cite Godwin, founded by the personable Pat Godwin, as a local economic success story.

There are others. Edwards Brothers, Lillington’s largest manufacturer, prints up to 250 books a week, including 400 copies of the latest Harry Potter book. And also noteworthy is the county’s small business incubator, which has grown markedly in the past several years.

“We are seeing a lot of new commercial growth,” says Dunn Chamber Executive Vice President Tammy Williams. “We are a major service area for four counties and are working cooperatively with our wonderful community college to help the unemployed textile workers. I want to give credit to our local leaders for their new and renewed interest in helping economic growth.”

Dunn’s marketing slogan is “It’s all right here.” That slogan, Williams says, applies to families and businesses.

Building on Education

One of the major ingredients in Harnett’s ability to restructure from dwindling textile and other manufacturing job losses is Central Carolina Community College. While headquartered in neighboring Lee County, the college has seven campus branches in Harnett and is adding fuel that feeds the county’s growth. “We always try to provide the services and programs that are needed and beneficial,” says Provost Bill Tyson. The college adjusts to fit requests for training by industrial clients.

The Harnett portion of the community college program has 77 fulltime faculty members and adds a $3 million annual payroll to the county. The school serves more than 625 students and has provided training and continuing education courses for more than 400 laid off workers since the job losses started. The college has $3 million in physical facilities in the county, with more planned for the new industrial park branch. The community college also has a cooperative arrangement with Campbell University for academic opportunities for students wishing to continue toward a four-year degree.

The community college offers the state’s only laser and fiber optics laboratory as well as a variety of academic programs that directly benefit local industries and businesses.

Campbell University and the community college are leading the way toward advanced educational opportunities for Harnett residents, but there are 13 separate college or university campuses within little more than an hour’s drive of the county, affording businesses with an ample supply of trained and educated workers.

Harnett has two hospitals, both quality enterprises, located within a few miles of each other in Dunn and Erwin. Betsy Johnson Hospital in Dunn, a nonprofit facility serving the county for 60 years with a long and strong community mission, is the larger of the two medical facilities with a $23 million payroll for 520 employees and $45 million in net revenue last year. It also has a $31 million expansion in progress. It provides a laundry list of health and medical services.

Good Hope Hospital in Erwin is half that size, but has been operating since 1913, having been started by the Duke family primarily for its mill employees. The two hospitals were in preliminary talks about merger last year when a private hospital company out of Texas offered to purchase Good Hope and convert it to a for-profit and expand the facility. Betsy Johnson officials are opposing that move. Good Hope wants to build a new $34 million hospital on 64 acres of land inside the Lillington city limits if the new owner takes over, but the state has denied the required certificate of need. Good Hope hospital is currently appealing the state’s decision.

Better healthcare is just one of the injections Harnett leaders are seeking to package with their other economic enhancements. Together, the leaders in all areas of the county insist, they are proving they can reach new heights. That’s a healthy goal that seems well within reach.

Campbell, Harnett's Crown Jewel,
Grows in Size and Academic Stature

It has been called the Big Miracle at Little Buies Creek. It is that and more. It would not be too much of a stretch to say that Campbell University is to the community of Buies Creek what food and water are to life: essential. And while that’s about as important as anything can get, Campbell’s life support system reaches far beyond its own campus.

Campbell, a century and 17 years old this month, is the lifeblood of much of Harnett County as well as the surrounding region. Without the thriving university, Buies Creek might well have just gone away. And certainly without Campbell, all of Harnett wouldn’t have nearly the people, the economic base, or the lifestyle that currently exists. No single entity in the county has had the sustaining significance of the university over the last century.

“Campbell is an unbelievably accomplished part of this entire region,” says Harnett County Economic Development Commission Executive Director Lee Anne Nance. “It is certainly one of our greatest assets. The economic and educational impact of the campus and its people is tremendous and continues to grow.”

The facts speak for themselves. Campbell was founded on Jan. 5, 1887, by a virtually penniless preacher whose philosophy on education was two-fold: education should be training for life as well as a living and no one should be denied a chance to learn for lack of funds.

From that first class of 21 students from nearby farms, through the Great Depression years when Campbell survived on Christian faith and borrowed money, to the present as the second largest Baptist university in the nation, the institution has persevered and become better with age.

Campbell is today a $200 million asset for Harnett County. It has an annual budget of $92 million and an annual payroll of $35 million. It is the county’s second largest employer (behind the public schools) with 1,700 fulltime and part-time faculty and staff. It has an enrollment of 2,500 undergraduates, another 1,500 in its graduate schools and 2,300 students enrolled in academic programs at nearby military bases.

The on-campus student body also fosters an indirect economic benefit to the region. Parents of these students fill more than 4,000 motel rooms every year when they come for campus events. Campbell students come from all 50 states and 43 foreign countries, but the focus always has been on serving students from the state and region.

And as positive as the school’s staying power has been, an optimistic president Dr. Jerry Wallace says without even a hint of doubt that Campbell’s best days lie ahead. If so, that’s good news for the county and region as well as the school.

Campbell’s evolution from a small, little-known low budget school that catered to provincial farm families to its present prominence is primarily tied to the energy and enterprise of longtime president Dr. Norman Wiggins. Wiggins, trained in the law and a former law professor at Wake Forest University, served as Campbell’s president from 1967 until the spring of 2003. Under Wiggins’ leadership, Campbell branched beyond basic undergraduate programs to open graduate schools of law (1976), business (1983), pharmacy (1986), and divinity (1995).

Wiggins’ singular mission as president was to stress quality over quantity and to make Campbell the best it could be for students and the neighborhood, a point he made in his inaugural speech. “Our distinctive education goal is optimum quality,” Wiggins said. “We prefer to be measured by the services and contributions that our graduates make to mankind — to have teaching and research and not teaching versus research.”

Wiggins, on temporary leave with plans to return to the campus next summer with the title of chancellor, first stepped on the Campbell campus as a scholarship athlete, but never lost his interest in the institution. “I do think that Campbell is one of the great success stories of the region,” he says. “But this success has been a team effort and comes from the common purpose of a Christian commitment with academic excellence. It comes from the hard work by a lot of people. People have been of one mind to do what was necessary by selecting academic programs of high quality.”

Campbell is second only to Baylor as the largest Baptist supported university in the nation and second only to Duke in size among private universities in North Carolina. The school of pharmacy is one of three in the state. The school’s 600 acres virtually swallow the community of Buies Creek, which is named for Scotsman Archibald Buie, who settled in the area in the early 1700s. Campus assets include a dual-phased and professionally run 36-hole golf course, and surrounding upscale housing neighborhoods, with 300 students learning skills to work in the expanding golf industry.

Campbell’s professional schools have earned widespread support and praise. The School of Pharmacy has 390 students, and a $9 million annual budget with a $3 million drug production research facility. Three fourths of the 1,000 pharmacy graduates remain in the region or state and earn salaries of up to $90,000 a year. This year 100 percent of the students passed the state pharmacy examination and 98 percent passed the national pharmacy board exam. “These incredible high passage rates on both state and national exams can be attributed to the high caliber of students, faculty and preceptors,” Pharmacy School Dean Dr. Ronald Maddox says.

The pharmacy program seems to fit perfectly the state’s expanding and viable biotech industry where jobs are plentiful. The school already partners with multiple drug manufacturing companies for training and services.

“We always challenge our students to make a difference,” President Wallace says. “The key to our success goes back to our original purpose to be a Christian institution and we are still embracing that purpose. Our location of being so close to the military bases has brought the world to us. We are proud of what we have accomplished.”

Given what Campbell has and is meaning to the uplifting of this region, no one is challenging that assessment. -- Ned Cline

Public Schools, Private Industry
Form a Working, Winning Partnership

Good schools and thriving businesses go together like biscuits and gravy. In Harnett County, that combination is making for some healthy appetites. Public schools and private industry in Harnett have formed a mutually beneficial partnership that is making significant progress. Like most worthy business enterprises or learning processes, it started slowly and has spread to offer educational advantages to every student willing to listen. Business people are learning from it, too.

That wholesome partnership, added to the variety of recreational and tourist activities in Harnett, is one of the cornerstones that local leaders and industrial recruiters are using to successfully market the region and enhance the economic base.

The Dunn Area Chamber of Commerce formed the Harnett Business/Education Partnership in 1994 to provide pre-employment training for senior English classes and offer one day of hands-on shadowing of a business for seniors at Triton High School.

When a temporary federal grant obtained to begin the program expired, the local business community voluntarily stepped forward to continue and expand the program that is now totally dependent on corporate and individual contributions and volunteers.

“It has worked well,” Harnett School Superintendent Donald Andrews says. “It has allowed us to provide services to teachers, learning experiences for students and work cooperatively with businesses, community colleges and Campbell University. The partnership doesn’t absorb many corporate dollars, and its most important link is the cooperative spirit between business and public schools.

“When business people look at our schools, they find a very strong system,” Andrews adds. “This quality only enhances economic development and opportunity.”

Partnership chairwoman Kim Hargrove, the county’s elected register of deeds, calls the cooperative effort “very valuable” to the community. “The partnership is committed to preparing all students for successful careers and this affords opportunities for school-based and work-based learning,” she says. “Our goal is to keep open communication between the business and education groups and to teach students about life as well as learning. We have many bankers, chambers, and individual business owners and government people involved. It’s a true and valuable partnership.”

The Harnett school system is the county’s largest single employer with more than 2,000 faculty and staff serving more than 16,875 students in 25 schools. The county has opened three new schools in the last four years and another new high school will open later this year. The school system, 22nd largest in the state, has an annual budget of $125 million.

Fourteen of the schools last year obtained classification of distinction by the State Board of Education and one was a school of excellence. “We’re not yet where we want to be, but we’re getting there and making real progress,” Superintendent Andrews says.

Areas of academic improvement opportunities pertain to SAT scores and dropout rates. Harnett SAT scores last year averaged 976, slightly below the state average while the dropout rate was slightly higher than the state average. “That dropout rate figure is pretty misleading,” the superintendent explains, “because some of these students choose to attend alternative classes. We don’t tolerate problem students in our system, but they may not be out of school. They’re in another kind of classroom environment, some at the community college, learning workplace skills. They are all counted as dropouts by the state, but many are still in school somewhere.”

Beyond the boardroom-to-classroom programs, Harnett offers its residents and visitors a variety of services designed to enhance family life, learning and economic enhancement.

While Harnett is not usually listed among the state’s top tourist attractions, the opportunities are available and more people are learning what is here. Tourism last year generated more than $43 million in revenue. “We have a number of great attractions, so it would be difficult to name a top one,” says tourism director Dana Cochran. “Campbell University books more motel rooms (about 4,000) in the Dunn area each year than any other organization and golfing is a great attraction in the Harnett area. Many or our attractions are close to I-95 that brings people to our area.” But that’s not all.

The Harnett tourism office in Dunn, located in the former home of hometown war hero Gen. William Lee, lists more than two dozen attractions for visitors. Two of the most visited sites are Raven Rock State Park and Averasboro Civil War Battlefield. Raven Rock, nine miles west of Lillington, is one of the state’s premier park sites with 4,667 acres for hiking, horseback riding, camping and educational programs. More than 112,000 people visited the park last year. Averasboro Battleground is the site of a significant battle between Union and Confederate soldiers. An annual re-enactment in March on the anniversary of the battle and an October living history show are among the events held. “People come for what we call edu-tainment,” Cochran explains, “wanting both an education in history and to be entertained.”

“We’ve been a quiet sleeping bear,” says Harnett County EDC Executive Director Lee Anne Nance. But bears don’t hibernate but just so long. Those sounds you hear stirring in Harnett County represent an awakening. -- Ned Cline

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