Writer: Joshua Andino
2 min read January 2023 — Local government is on the frontline of economic and community development. Invest: spoke to local officials from Wake, Chatham and Johnston Counties to find out how they are handling key issues and what will be keeping them busy in 2023.
Typically progress moves at the speed of government, and while the region’s population, and subsequent demand on local government, is only expected to continue to grow, transit, water and sewer infrastructure, healthcare and public safety as well as the overall responsiveness of government to constituent concerns are key issues that counties across the area hope to address. With the pending release of Invest: Raleigh-Durham 2022-2023, Invest: explores what county managers around the area have to say as to what the future holds for their respective jurisdictions.
What do you consider to be the key highlights for the county over the last 12 months?
David Ellis, County Manager, Wake County
“Growth has not slowed in Wake County. On average, about 62 people are moving to Wake every day. In just the past year, we’ve had 117 new economic development projects, more than 1,500 high-quality jobs created and $126 million in investment. We’ve added Apple, Amgen, Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies and Blue Force Technologies, just to name some of the companies who have chosen to locate here recently. While the global corporations tend to make headlines, 83.5% of businesses here in Wake County are small businesses. Many of these businesses have been open for a while and are doing well. We saw more than 3,000 new small business filings last year, which further illustrates that Wake County offers a climate where businesses of all sizes can achieve success.”
Chris Johnson, Director of Economic Development, Johnston County
“Growth is exciting, but it comes with challenges. With growth comes expectations of stakeholders; that means infrastructure, water and sewer, schools and other quality of life determinants – it’s overall meeting the needs of citizens. Johnston County has been very fortunate, and this has not been an overnight case. We have been growing for the past two decades. We passed multiple school bonds, which is where a lot of our investment has gone. Our facilities are second to none. Don’t get me wrong, we have pressure points, but we’re doing a great job. We’re growing by about one school per year. We accomplished new construction and updating existing facilities without affecting our property taxes.
In terms of our transportation network directly into the county, we have I-95 along the corridor, I-40 running out of Raleigh and U.S. 70 being transitioned into I-42 to us. We’re one of the few counties in the state to have three interstates that touch our community, all of which point us to the Triangle. There are other transportation projects happening outside the county that will positively impact us.”
Dan LaMontagne, County Manager, Chatham County
“We’ve experienced a tremendous amount of growth over the last 12 months. We’ve landed many big companies including VinFast, the electrical vehicle manufacturer from Vietnam, which is a $4 billion investment bringing at least 7,500 jobs. We’re working diligently to get them up and running by July 2024. Triangle Innovation Point (TIP) has brought on a FedEx distribution facility, a $50 million investment bringing a couple hundred jobs. We also landed Coca-Cola, who moved its headquarters from Durham to Chatham County, which will bring $56 million in investment and a couple hundred jobs. On Sept. 9, Wolfspeed announced its decision to bring its semiconductor manufacturing to Chatham County, as well, which will be a $5 billion investment bringing in 1,800 jobs. As of Sept. 2022, we have seen almost $9 billion in investment and 9,000 jobs in Chatham County this year. We’ve been preparing for and expecting this growth for a long time. We knew that once we were discovered, it wouldn’t take long for the growth to come. We’re seeing that interest now in industrial, advanced manufacturing, electric vehicle manufacturing, semiconductor manufacturing and others. We still have plenty of room for more.”
What are the challenges moving forward?
“Housing affordability and transportation access are key challenges that we’re facing; those two go hand in hand. The third challenge is behavioral health. With housing, costs have risen tremendously here in Wake County, so some people are really struggling to save up enough money to purchase a home. As interest rates increase, it’s becoming even more challenging. We’re looking at implementing some homebuyer programs to help assist families in purchasing their first homes.
From a transportation standpoint, when you have so much growth so quickly, your quality of life can be impacted if you can’t get to and from work. To help, we’re working with the transit agencies to increase the number of buses on the roads, launch bus rapid transit routes early next year and develop the first phases of a commuter rail. If we can figure out how to create affordable housing in and around some of these potential train stops, we can help those who may not be able to afford a car get from place to place more easily.
Regarding behavioral health, we are unfortunately seeing a rise in the number of youth suicides. We’re funding behavioral health urgent care and more psychologists and nurses in our schools, so parents and children have access to appropriate behavioral health services.”
“Coming out of the fog of COVID, everybody was concerned about what would come next. The U.S. had its pause, and now my office phone is ringing off the hook with inquiries. The reshoring of manufacturing in response to pressures on the supply chain and realizing we can’t be solely relying on resources from another country has brought a lot of interest and development to Johnston County. We see a concentrated effort of revisiting what can be done locally so the supply chain can’t be as easily disrupted. We are working on meeting the challenges of finding labor, and through that has come the automation of processes where there are pressure points. I have a few sites and pieces of land available, but there is so much demand for existing buildings that I hardly have any product. I have turned away 50 or 60 projects as of October because I don’t have any buildings. My role is figuring out how to solve that problem. We’ve begun public-private partnerships without competing with the private sector to ensure we are all successful.”
“[Housing] is a challenge everywhere, especially in the Triangle and Triad. After the slowdown in 2008, new housing inventory dropped. The challenges we’re facing now are in part due to that decline. We’re working diligently with our towns to create more multifamily housing. We need way more townhomes and multifamily housing options in Chatham County for the workforce. Years ago, we established a housing trust fund to bring in low-income tax credit projects, which is a great step forward. We realize that demand drives this shortage; with so little jobs in Chatham County until recently, there was not much demand for diversified housing options. Because of 2022’s many announcements, I believe builders and developers will realize the value in investing and building in Chatham County to deliver those diverse housing options.”
What does the future hold for your county?
“I believe the future is bright, but I also believe we have work to do. As more and more people come here, we need to make sure that we have ways to move people, not just in and out of the county but around the county. Our county is 827 square miles – it’s very large – so we must plan how to get people from Morrisville to Downtown Raleigh, for example. You can’t put everyone on a commuter rail or on buses. We need a multimodal transportation system that will help get people where they need to go efficiently. I believe we’re in a good position, and we just need to continue to move the plan forward.”
“I make the commissioners’ visions reality, so it really depends on what they envision growth looking like over the next few years, but as an advocate for Downtown, I remember a growth spurt of the county happening outside of municipalities, where more people were moving into the rural side of things. In the past three to five years, there has been a concerted effort to push that growth to the municipalities, because then they can begin to be intentional about putting together great amenities, as opposed to encouraging sprawl. I see that moving forward in the future.”
“We’re starting to see ourselves as an electric vehicle advanced manufacturing hub. Between battery, automobile, semiconductor, and other types of manufacturing, it’s definitely becoming a focus of ours. The semiconductor industry alone will continue to develop. We originally envisioned the county being a key spot for life sciences because of its growth in other municipalities close by, but we’re really finding our niche falling closer to advanced manufacturing since Toyota’s arrival.
There are a lot of incoming construction opportunities to our communities, and we have plenty of Grade A small-to-mid-size contractors and construction firms that would greatly benefit from being included in the action. We’re working to figure out how we can inform them of opportunities with these upcoming construction projects.
Chatham County’s future is bright. Unfortunately, the crystal ball is a little blurry, but I look forward to seeing what’s next for us.”
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