Scotland County is motivated to recruit industry

Pernell Carthens is reflected in a shop window as he steps across Main Street on Friday, July 24, 2015 in Laurinburg, N.C. after talking with a friend. Carthens is reflected in a window of a vacant business along the once vibrant street. The Laurinburg Downtown Revitalization Corp. has invested $165,000 to freshen up the store fronts downtown. After power washing and fresh paint, new awnings were installed.
Pernell Carthens is reflected in a shop window as he steps across Main Street on Friday, July 24, 2015 in Laurinburg, N.C. after talking with a friend. Carthens is reflected in a window of a vacant business along the once vibrant street. The Laurinburg Downtown Revitalization Corp. has invested $165,000 to freshen up the store fronts downtown. After power washing and fresh paint, new awnings were installed. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Saddled with one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, businesses in Scotland County have adopted an unorthodox plan to help recruit new industry and boost the local economy.

Instead of simply pledging money to support economic development, more than 60 businesses in the county are offering one-of-a-kind incentive packages for any employer that commits to creating at least 50 new jobs. Convenience store Nic’s Pic Kwik donated $1,000 in gas and merchandise plus a free car wash each week for 52 weeks. Others have offered everything from free haircuts to a one-year membership at the local country club.

The offers, which are designed to supplement any incentives offered by the state and local governments, are a sign of the urgency to attract good-paying jobs in many rural areas of the state – areas where the unemployment rate has improved significantly since the recession yet still remains high.

“One thing I would say about this community is ... we’re not happy or satisfied about sitting back and taking what falls off the tree,” said Danny Caddell, who owns the State Farm insurance agency in Laurinburg and has offered 6 months’ free rent in the building on South Main Street he co-owns. “We want to shake that tree.”

One of the defining characteristics of this economic recovery is that it’s playing out differently in the urban and rural areas of the state. While the Triangle and Charlotte are adding jobs much faster than the rest of the nation, places such as Scotland County are fighting to get their fair share.

In Raleigh, Gov. Pat McCrory is pushing for adoption of his “N.C. Competes” jobs incentive plan as a way to boost economic development incentives for poorer regions such as Scotland County. But business and government officials here are well aware that there are limits to what the state can do, especially since the county sometimes competes against its counterparts across the state with access to the same incentives.

Lee Howell, chairman of the Laurinburg/Scotland County Area Chamber of Commerce, calculates that the sum “retail value” of the unique incentives offered by local businesses is about $200,000.

But it’s the “symbolism” that’s most important to Ryan Nance of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, who recruits industry for a 10-county region that includes Scotland County.

“It shows it’s a business-friendly county and they are ready to do what they can to recruit more industry,” Nance said.

In June, the Chamber of Commerce sent a delegation of about a dozen business leaders and elected officials – “a van full,” Howell said – to meet with legislators and Christopher Chung, the state’s top jobs recruiter.

“We told them,” Howell said, that “we don’t expect (you) to do everything. We want to know what we can do to help you to help us to get industry here.”

Scotland County – which abuts the South Carolina border and whose county seat, Laurinburg, is roughly 100 miles southwest of Raleigh by car – is part of the Sandhills region noted for its pine trees and sandy soil. Carved out of Richmond County in 1899, the county was first settled by immigrant Scots as early as 1729.

About 20 percent of the county is state game land owned by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

“That property is nonproductive from a property tax standpoint,” said Guy McCook, chairman of the Scotland County commissioners.

Location is one of the county’s selling points when it’s recruiting industry.

“Within two hours of Scotland County, you have a ring of over 5 million people,” said Kevin Patterson, the county manager. “You have major suppliers, major customers. ... You have proximity to Interstate 74, I-95, ports.”

Scotland County officials are reminded each month of the need to recruit more businesses – when the state releases the unemployment rates for all 100 counties. Scotland County’s unemployment rate has long ranked among the state’s highest.

The county’s unemployment rate for June, which was released Wednesday, was 11.7 percent. That’s nearly twice North Carolina’s not-seasonally-adjusted rate of 6.1 percent and worse than every other county except Graham, where the unemployment rate is 12.3 percent.

But there’s also a glass-half-full perspective. The unemployment rate is significantly lower than when it peaked at 18.6 percent in July 2011. And the rate, which can fluctuate from month to month, has fallen below 10 percent twice in the past seven months.

The Scotland County economy was staggered in the 2000s, first by a national slowdown in migration and the shipping of textile jobs overseas, then by the recession. A parade of major employers closed or cut back their operations, eliminating thousands of jobs.

Abbott Laboratories alone had nearly 1,000 employees when it closed in 2002. WestPoint Stevens cut 800 jobs when it closed a textile plant in 2007. Altogether, one-third of the county’s nonfarm employees lost their jobs in a decade.

“When the unemployment rate was 18 percent ... you had a lot of people who obviously were very scared,” Patterson said. “But now they see growth. They see positive economic events in Scotland County.”

Manufacturing accounts for about 19 percent of the workforce, Patterson said.

“The existing industry base, and the technical skills of some of their manufacturing, is impressive,” Nance said. “There’s some fairly sophisticated and advanced manufacturing going on in Scotland County.

Recruitment wins

That manufacturing base has been bolstered in recent years by some successful recruiting efforts:

▪  In June, BlueScope Buildings North America, which makes metal buildings, committed to expanding its Laurinburg plant, adding 115 jobs over the next three years that will pay an average annual salary of $38,393.

▪  Last August, a Canadian tissue manufacturer, Cascades Tissue Group, announced it would invest $62 million in a new manufacturing facility that would create 68 jobs.

▪  In July 2013, FCC, which makes transmission components and clutches for cars and other vehicles, announced its second expansion in an 11-month span. Altogether, FCC committed to an $80 million investment creating 96 new jobs.

State Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat who represents the county, said of its progress: “We’re on base. But we need a cleanup hitter to hit a grand slam for us.”

Indeed, jobless workers here, although well aware that the unemployment rate has steadily improved, still view finding a job a daunting prospect.

Emily Smith, 26, of Laurinburg, lost her job conducting criminal background checks at the beginning of June, after the employment company she worked for was acquired and she was deemed a “redundancy.”

Smith, who has a bachelor’s degree in international business from Appalachian State, said she’s applied for more than 50 job openings – including jobs well beyond the county line and many that don’t require a college degree – but has yet to land an interview.

“One place told me they received 1,000 applications,” she said.

Regina Smith (no relation), 52, a single mother of three sons, lost her job at the Perdue Farms poultry processing plant in Rockingham four months ago. Her unemployment benefits, which amounted to $203 a week, have expired.

“I just barely have my head above water,” she said.

Smith said it’s not easy to find employers who are taking applications. She’s submitted more than 15 so far.

“Everywhere I go, I’m stopping and asking: Are they hiring? Are they hiring? Nobody is hiring,” she said.

Bryan Freeman, who was finishing up breakfast at McDonald’s with his 5-year-old daughter on a recent morning before heading for a trip to the mountains, said he feels fortunate to have a job that pays $22 an hour at Campbell Soup Co. in nearby Robeson County.

“I think it’s still tough to get jobs around here – decent jobs,” said Freeman, 34, a Laurinburg resident. “I just know a lot of people looking for jobs, good people” who can’t find work.

Still, the overall improvement in the economy – in both the county and the surrounding region – has been a boon to Scotland Motors, the used car dealership owned by Howell, the Chamber of Commerce chairman. It’s located on the site of a former Chevrolet dealership in Laurinburg that stocks more than 300 cars and trucks, and Howell recently purchased an adjacent lot that will accommodate 100 more vehicles.

“This year is on track to be the best year in the history of the company,” Howell said. Scotland Motors was started by Howell’s late father in 1967.

Howell also is encouraged that he’s selling more dump trucks, cargo vans and other “work trucks.”

“That means their business is doing good,” he said. “That’s how we gauge that the economy is getting better.”

Although McCook, the county commissioner, is pleased that Scotland has been able to attract some high-paying jobs and is hoping to land more, his wish list includes recruiting some lower-skilled, entry-level jobs.

“We do have a lot of poverty in our community,” McCook said. “I think we have a lot of underskilled workers, what I would call undereducated workers in our county. The poverty and lack of education all kind of go together. ... That’s where our persistent high unemployment comes from.”

The portion of Scotland County residents whose income was below the poverty level in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, was 32.3 percent. The statewide average is 17.5 percent.

“While workforce development is important in trying to improve the skills of these folks,” McCook said, “the short answer is we need to put them to work.”

David Ranii: 919-829-4877, @dranii