Chatham’s role in America’s comeback

Chatham officials reflect on Biden visit


DURHAM — Siler City Town Manager Hank Raper walked into last Monday evening’s budget workshop, gearing himself up for the start of the town’s budget cycle.

Not long after sitting down to dig into the agenda, Raper was alerted to an email message.

It was from the CEO of Wolfspeed, Gregg Lowe. The subject: Lowe was inviting Raper to Wolfspeed’s Durham campus the very next morning for a visit from a very special guest: President Joe Biden. 

“I got a call from [EDC President] Michael Smith at 5 p.m. saying that this could happen, and I got an invitation at 6:36 p.m. during our budget work session, so I didn’t have any advance notice of that either,” Raper said. “So I knew (Biden) was coming last week to Durham, but I didn’t think anything of it at the time.”

Raper was among the few Chatham County officials there for Biden’s visit to Wolfspeed, the president’s first stop on his tour across the country to promote his administration’s economic agenda. Biden is working to promote the CHIPS Act, designed to designate funding for companies like Wolfspeed to invest in building industries across the United States. 

Smith, representing the county’s Economic Development Corporation, said the visit from Biden was “a great day for Chatham County.”

“This will provide jobs and an opportunity for people here in the community that now must drive to other places for work,” Smith said. “He (Biden) referred to our VinFast win also during his speech. We are grateful to have two transformational projects announced in our community.”

Karen Howard, the chairperson of the Chatham County’s Board of Commissioners, was also present. She said she received an invitation a few days prior to the event, and said she was more than ecstatic to be present for Biden’s address. 

“I felt honored to be part of a small contingent representing Chatham County at the event,” Howard said. “The message was uplifting and positive, pointing to a future of greater investment in the American people and our local communities.”

Raper, Howard and Smith sat together during the speaking portion of the event. Several elected officials — including North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper — Lowe and Wolfspeed co-founder John Edmond spoke prior to the president’s address last Tuesday. 

Lowe said during his remarks that Biden’s visit allowed for Wolfspeed to showcase its silicon carbide production, which he said will play a crucial role in the automotive industry. 

“We’re at an exciting time in the automobile industry as we move from the internal combustion engine to the electric vehicle, and we’re a core part of that because silicon carbide helps those electric vehicles go further with the same amount of battery but also charge faster,” Lowe said. 

Biden’s remarks focused on America’s economy, specifically in regard to its emerging electric vehicle market. He emphasized the importance of togetherness, especially when talking about America’s “coming back.”

“We’re here to talk about what we’re doing in America — to invest in North Carolina in building an economy from the middle out to the bottom up, not trickle down from the top, down,” Biden told those in attendance. “We used to invest 2% of our GDP in research and development. In the last 35 years, it got down to 0.7%, but America is coming back. We’re determined to lead the world in manufacturing semiconductors.”

Biden’s “from the middle” approach resonated with several individuals in the audience, including Howard. She said it’s important to create avenues for all to have a well-providing career and a way out from generational poverty. 

“We, as a community, have said that a path out of poverty should not require that a family go farther into debt or that an individual take on loans that will hinder their future financial success,” she said. “I believe that is exactly what we are doing here in Chatham County by creating opportunities for individuals and families to access a more prosperous future. Investing in the people is investing in the middle.”

Howard said Wolfspeed’s and VinFast’s announcements — and the $9 billion in investment they’re bringing to Chatham — will provide opportunities for Chatham County students to have well-paying jobs, as well as participate in the local economy. She also said programs through Central Carolina Community College are already in the works to train students for these new jobs. 

“Together with our community college, Chatham County Schools is actively designing programming, degrees and certifications that will open up these future jobs to our kids right here in Chatham,” Howard said. “[These are] Good-paying jobs with real prospects for advancement in forward-looking technologies that will help guide, not just Chatham, but our region and our country toward a more sustainable future.”

Wolfspeed coming to Siler City will help create wealth in a community that historically has had a lower median income, according to Raper. He said Siler City is a great example of the return of America Biden consistently mentioned in his remarks. 

“If you got someone making $80,000, that’s at the income level where you’re getting beyond necessities, and you actually get to have a higher standard of living ... to buy a home, to buy a car, to have a family,” Raper said. “This has been an agricultural economy forever … we’re now building a broader, more diverse economy.”

Raper said by having a wide range of different industries, Siler City’s current and future residents will be able to have access to higher-income jobs and a better quality of life. 

“There are going to be people who still want to work at Mountaire [Farms], there are going to be people who want to work at Wolfspeed,” he said. “When you’re appealing to potentially different demographics, you want to have as inclusive of an economy as you possibly can. I think that helps us diversify so that we have more employment opportunities for many different types of people who may want to be a part of Siler City.”

Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at