Harnett County is emerging
from economic adversity
stronger and smarter because
everyone joined hands
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
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.
Grows in Size, Stature
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“When business people look at our schools, they find a very strong system,”
Andrews adds. “This quality only enhances economic development and
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
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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