Local business leaders say Cabarrus County has been hit hard by high unemployment rates - rates that are still climbing - but business recruiting successes before the recession have softened the blow of the ongoing economic troubles.
Unemployment in Cabarrus County rose to 12.1 percent in December, the most recent month for which statistics are available. The number was up from 11.6 percent in October and November.
Statewide, the unemployment rate jumped to a 30-year high of 11.2 percent in December, according to a report released by the N.C. Employment Security Commission in January.
"Cabarrus County has been the poster child for unemployment for the decade of the 2000s," said John Cox, CEO of Cabarrus Economic Development and Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce.
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Cox pointed to the 2002 closing of the Corning plant in Midland, the 2003 closing of Kannapolis-based Pillowtex and Philip Morris' recent decision to abandon its Concord cigarette plant. The closing of the Philip Morris plant spelled the loss of 2,600 jobs, he said.
Carolyn Mays, manager of the ESC's office in Concord, said the number of people requesting assistance from her office has increased significantly.
In December, 691 people filed for unemployment in Cabarrus County. That's up from 597 in November, 587 in October and 656 in September.
Mays said she hasn't seen unemployment rates this high since the closing of Pillowtex when unemployment crept close to 10 percent.
The area saw 360 business dissolutions in 2009 - nearly one for every day of the year, Cox said.
"You'd think a community like ours would be sinking," Cox said. "What we're finding is that we're still a very sustainable community."
To combat unemployment, county leaders are actively recruiting companies, encouraging them to relocate in the area and offering incentives to entice them.
Cox said his team travelled more than 63,000 miles to 16 major U.S. cities and a handful of foreign countries, seeking business deals.
"We've been fighting harder for fewer projects," Cox said.
One of the area's recent successes was a Charlotte-based company's decision to expand its facilities to the International Business Park in Concord.
Celgard, which is developing lithium batteries for electric cars, announced in January that its new Concord facility, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2014, will bring 209 jobs to the area. The average pay for the new employees, who will range from machinists to researchers, will be $56,960.
Celgard spokesman John Mozena said the company chose the Concord location for its proximity to the company's Charlotte headquarters, access to several transportation options and the availability of workers capable of filling necessary positions.
"We're not trying to find people from out of state," he said. "We're trying to find people in North Carolina."
Mozena said city and county tax incentives also attracted the company.
Another success came in 2008 when PreGel America completed its new North American headquarters, also located in the International Business Park in Concord.
Jillian Hillard, marketing manager of PreGel, said the Italian company, which supplies ingredients for gelato, was attracted to the area for the tax incentives offered by the city and the location's access to transportation.
In 2009, the company added 15 new jobs, mostly in manufacturing, at the facility. As of last week, there were three job openings in customer service, operations and production.
Concord Mayor Scott Padgett said county and city officials often work together to offer incentive packages to attract businesses to the area and produce jobs for locals.
Concord offers the reimbursement of 85 percent of the property taxes generated over a three-year period to companies willing to make a local investment of at least $1.5 million.
"Years ago, we realized we needed to diversify," Padgett said, noting businesses such as PreGel that were drawn to the area with offers of incentives. "As bad as things are, I think it's worth remembering that if we had not been aggressive in the past, things would be worse."
Padgett acknowledged objections to offering businesses tax breaks but said the market requires such enticements.
"If incentives were abolished across the board, across the United States, that would be great," Padgett said. "But we have to deal with the cards we're dealt. The reality of the situation is that with the competitiveness of modern day economic development, incentives have to be one tool to keep us competitive."
Although Cox said Cabarrus County has a lot to offer businesses, the recession will limit the number of companies willing to make substantial investments. He believes the county's unemployment has peaked, but it might stay at high levels for months, he said.
"Until the economy has sorted itself out, it's going to be a very uncomfortable time for all of us."