CH@T: Development project activity at ‘all-time high’ in Chatham County

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Michael Smith is an experienced economic development professional with more than 20 years serving in local organizations and with the N.C. Dept. of Commerce.

At his most recent position in Lee County, he had significant success in business recruitment and product development. Smith has served as the President of the North Carolina Economic Development Association (NCEDA). He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a Master’s Degree in Geography with a concentration in Urban/Regional Planning from East Carolina University. We spoke with Smith to get an update on development in Chatham County.

Michael, you’ve just passed your six-month mark as the new EDC director. If you could give an “elevator” speech now to your “first day” Michael Smith, what would you say?

“Welcome to beautiful Chatham County, the third-fastest growing county in the ninth-largest state. Things will be busy, and lots will require your attention. There are many people to meet, all with important perspectives and helpful advice. This is the only county in N.C. with two megasites of over 1,500 acres and are full of potential, waiting for you to harness it. Combined with the amazing live/work/play community of Chatham Park that is now vertical — six months will be gone before you know it. Let’s get started.”

By now you know your way around Chatham, you’ve gotten to know the business and industry leaders and you’ve gotten to know the landscape. What’s occupying your hours and days and weeks now? What’s at the top of your task lists?

Even prior to my start in January, project activity has been at an all-time high. So, when I arrived, that was one of the first things I dove into. This activity is certainly occupying my hours, days and weeks. In my 20 years in economic development in N.C. there has never been a time like this. As for the projects themselves, activity is high in that there is a large number of them coming across my desk, as well as large numbers being attached to them around investments, jobs and impact. It really is an exciting time to be working in this field.

Also occupying my time is a new program we are hoping to launch soon — a small business grant program. Through funding provided to us from the county, we will be able to give grant money out to small businesses in Chatham. We’re not completely ready to give all the details or fully announce it yet, but we want people to know that it is in the pipeline, and many of our board members have been hard at work developing the program to support small businesses and entrepreneurs.

We’ve talked plenty before with you about Chatham’s megasites and the potential we have here to land candidates. What can you share with us about any movement or any discussions you’re having with prospects for either of the megasites?

Both the Triangle Innovation Point in Moncure and the Chatham Advanced Manufacturing Site in Siler City have been involved in the project activity I discussed previously. I would love to share more information about the projects with your readers, but in these discussions, confidentiality is key. Companies need the confidentiality to protect stock values, contend with their competition, maintain employee satisfaction and for many other reasons. They are looking for communities to be an ally in the search for a new location, or conversely, looking for a reason to cross a community off the list.

Regarding movement and discussions, we are in communications with our state partners at the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina almost daily regarding potential for our sites. Having these two megasites during a time of increased activity and interest in Central North Carolina continues to be an advantage for us and provides us a great opportunity to help create new jobs and increase the tax base for Chatham County. The time and hard work done by my predecessors at the EDC has allowed us to be in an excellent position during this unique time. My team and I feel fortunate to be a part of all of this positive energy that is in our region in 2021.

The last time we spoke, we discussed the progress at Chatham Park. The business sections at Chatham Park are in the process of leasing space. What role are you playing in the development and upfit of Chatham Park, and as the lead economic developer, how does having something like Chatham Park make your job easier — or harder?

The role I have with Chatham Park is mutually beneficial. We often use their impressive conference room when hosting visitors to the County. There is no other mixed use development like it on the East Coast. In turn, we are doing the work that will be bringing the people that will potentially be their future residents.

Having Chatham Park in our community is one of our greatest assets. When companies come to visit, they want to know where their employees will live, and what better place to show them than Chatham Park, where you can see the active construction going on in a Class A community built for the 21st Century?

The commercial space being added at Chatham Park is also a great benefit to our work. That space will be filled by companies offering jobs to Chatham residents, hopefully cutting down on the rate of out commuting recapturing some of the retail dollars spent elsewhere when people work outside of the county.

Can you address the employment picture in Chatham County? We know of small businesses having a difficult time filling positions here, but we also know Chatham sends many of its residents across the county border to work… What’s Chatham’s employment outlook, short-term and long-term?

Employment issues are hitting everyone right now, businesses large and small. What’s interesting to note is that these challenges aren’t new. In February 2020, before the pandemic truly took hold, Chatham’s unemployment rate was at 3%, which is low, and we were hearing from employers then that staffing was getting hard to find. In June of this year, it was at 3.9%. I think for a lot of people, the pandemic has changed the way they live, whether it being one parent leaving work to provide childcare while schools were virtual, health concerns during the pandemic or other issues. Now that vaccines are available, schools are reopening, and we can begin moving forward again, hopefully there will be progress on the employment front as well. For the long term, employment is tied into larger issues, like the availability and affordability worker housing that were frequent discussions prior to the pandemic. We are committed to working with our local, regional and state partners on these issues.

One of the less glamorous part of your work, I’m sure, involves collaborating and communicating about infrastructure. Chatham’s water woes have been well-documented, particularly what Pittsboro is dealing with. Can you give us a summary of your assessment of our industrial and business infrastructure — the way you might communicate it to a prospect?

A strength we have when it comes to our infrastructure is that we have strong leadership in the county and the region that are actively taking the steps needed to improve it. Plans have been made, upgrades and expansions are under way. We do have infrastructure challenges, but they are being addressed head on by our community leaders, which in turn makes prospective companies feel reassured. These types of challenges aren’t exactly unique to Chatham, and most often prospects want reassurances that addressing the challenges are a priority, which they are.

The EDC has made a number of changes to its website, and you’ve previously addressed your desire of sharing information about the EDC and what’s happening in Chatham County with the stakeholders and residents here. What’s taking place in that regard (and this is an opportunity to talk about the newsletter we’re working on, etc.….)?

We have updated our website to feature some new content we have, including an expansive map of everything Chatham and the surrounding areas have to offer. It’s a great map to show prospects, as it really showcases what we all know and love about Chatham.

Also in the works is the business column we are collaborating with News + Record Reporter Lars Dolder to produce, which will feature some of our larger industry employers in the county. Most of these larger employers were essential operations during the pandemic, and we want to recognize their hard work. It is important, too, for residents to be aware of all the great things being made here in Chatham, to drum up some hometown pride. Residents and stakeholders can stay up to date with us on our website, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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