Can a ‘Not Charlotte’ Recipe Revive a Region?

Scott Kidd didn’t expect a terribly busy job when he became the town manager of Liberty, N.C., a onetime furniture and textile hub whose rhythms more recently centered on a yearly antiques festival.

Those quiet times, less than three years ago, soon became a whirlwind. Toyota announced it was building a battery factory on the town’s rural outskirts for electric and hybrid vehicles, and since then Mr. Kidd has reviewed ordinances, met with housing developers and otherwise sought to meet the needs of a seven-million-square-foot facility.

The flurry of activity reflects new investments in a region of North Carolina that has lagged behind: the Triad. The average income in Randolph County, which includes Liberty, is $47,000, and some jobs at Toyota will offer an hourly wage comfortably above that. More people moving into the area could breathe life into Liberty’s downtown.

But the potential dividends for the area — which includes Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point, in the center of the state — depend on equipping its workers with the skills needed for those new jobs. Mr. Kidd worried that many local workers lacked the education and skills to work at the plant.

For those jobs, “they don’t write anything down — they put it in a computer,” Mr. Kidd said. “And if you don’t know how to do that, you kind of get x-ed out.”

At the same time, some residents and local leaders who welcome the new industries worry about maintaining the area’s character, lest it become like the rapidly growing — and expensive — sprawls elsewhere in the South.

“We don’t want to be Charlotte,” said Marvin Price, executive vice president of economic development at the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce, referring to the banking center 100 miles down Interstate 85. “We want to be the best version of Greensboro.”

Like many states, North Carolina has drawn on new federal and state incentives to attract more advanced manufacturing and clean technology businesses. And the Triad, built on the tobacco, textile and furniture industries, is trying to pivot toward advanced manufacturing, offering a potential blueprint to other regions whose economic engines sputtered with globalization and the rise of automation.

When it opens next year, Toyota’s Liberty factory will make batteries for vehicles built in Kentucky. Ten minutes away in Siler City, Wolfspeed, a semiconductor manufacturer, is building a factory with a $5 billion investment. Toyota has been awarded almost $500 million in incentives and tax breaks from the State of North Carolina, while federal legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, the CHIPS Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act have enticed investment.

“The Biden administration policies have helped North Carolina and especially the Triad become a clean energy epicenter in this country,” Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said at a recent event in Greensboro.

Toyota is building a battery factory for electric and hybrid vehicles on the rural outskirts of Liberty.

A former furniture factory is being used as a warehouse in High Point, N.C., which is part of the Triad region.

For decades, the Triad has been the state’s manufacturing base. High Point became known as the home furnishings capital of the world, with the city and surrounding areas accounting for 60 percent of the country’s furniture production at their peak. Along with furniture, Greensboro and Winston-Salem specialized in textiles and tobacco. And while the Research Triangle of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill had renowned universities in the University of North Carolina, Duke and North Carolina State, the Triad had Wake Forest University.

But like many manufacturing regions, its fortunes started to decline in the 1970s. Jobs in textiles started being moved overseas or automated, furniture contracted with the arrival of cheaper Chinese imports, and tobacco contracted because of a decline in smoking. Mills shut down, sitting vacant for decades, and downtowns languished.

At the same time, the economy of the Triangle, which had the country’s largest corporate research park, took off as research and tech companies grew. In 2001, the Research Triangle and the Triad had roughly the same economic output; by 2021, the two had diverged. Both regions gained population, but the Triangle grew faster, buoyed by growing numbers of college-educated workers.

Some industries have received a lifeline in recent years: Furniture boomed during the height of the pandemic from increased demand for home furnishings, and manufacturing has been resurging across the country. But hundreds of workers lost their jobs last year with the shuttering of several factories.

“This area of the state has found itself in a situation where it has to diversify,” said Jerry Fox, an economics professor at High Point University. “This is an opportunity for people in our area to have better-paying jobs.”

Signs of change are evident in downtowns. In High Point, a hosiery mill sat vacant for decades, opening only for biannual furniture showrooms. But in 2021, a group of local investors joined with the city’s Chamber of Commerce and a local foundation that donated more than $40 million to convert the site to a co-working space, Congdon Yards. Today, it houses around 50 employers and 360 employees.

The Congdon Yards co-working space in High Point occupies a former hosiery mill.
The space sat vacant for decades before investors came together to raise funds for the conversion.
The former mill is now home to dozens of employers and hundreds of employees.
The former R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company factory in Winston-Salem is now part of the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter.Credit…Mike Belleme for The New York Times

Similar projects have been undertaken in Winston-Salem and Greensboro. In downtown Winston-Salem, old cigarette factories have become the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, a research-focused district that cost more than $500 million. In Greensboro, one of the city’s oldest textile mills has been converted into a mixed-use complex, with amenities like a pizzeria to go along with office space.

Still, challenges remain.

One is preparing the region’s workers for jobs that require different skills. Thomas Built, a bus manufacturer based in High Point since 1916, has been making electric buses over the past decade. It has nearly 2,000 employees in High Point, making it one of the city’s top employers.

Kevin Bangston, the chief executive of Thomas Built, said the company had hired more than 300 workers over the past 15 months. But he has found it difficult to hire for more skilled jobs that handle automated processes in the factory.

“Demand is very high for those positions, and supply is very low,” Mr. Bangston said.

Key to that transition is the role of work force development programs, which involve partnerships between businesses and community colleges to provide the skills to work in advanced manufacturing.

One school offering such training is Guilford Technical Community College, the site of Mr. Cooper’s Greensboro appearance. At the same event, Jill Biden, the first lady, highlighted what she saw as the importance of such programs to enacting President Biden’s economic agenda.

The school offers apprenticeships, enabling students to work while earning an associate degree. One program, designed by Toyota, aims to qualify workers for jobs at the company.

Guilford Technical Community College’s campus in Greensboro, N.C., where students learn skills they can use in advanced manufacturing jobs.
Students at the school learn about electricity, motor controls and the components of car batteries.
Devante Cuthbertson joined the apprenticeship program at Guilford Tech last year.
The president of Guilford Tech said the arrival of Toyota had increased interest in the school’s programs.

Devante Cuthbertson, 28, grew up in Greensboro and was working for a flooring company around 30 minutes away as a machine operator, but he left that job in 2023 to join the apprenticeship program at Guilford Tech. There, he takes classes twice a week and goes to the Toyota battery plant site three times a week for an apprenticeship program, applying classroom learning about electricity, motor controls and the components of car batteries.

“I wanted to ensure I had an education,” said Mr. Cuthbertson, who said he intended to apply for a job at Toyota as a maintenance technician when he graduates in 2025.

Anthony Clarke, the president of Guilford Tech, said the arrival of Toyota — with the promise of high-paying jobs — had boosted interest in the school’s programs.

“Any time employers stand up and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got really good-paying jobs,’ students pay attention to that, and they flock to that,” Dr. Clarke said.

Economic development leaders and elected officials have cited the area’s affordability as a draw for companies and workers alike, particularly as housing costs have skyrocketed nationally. According to Zillow, the average home valuation in the Triad’s three main cities is around $250,000, compared with more than $300,000 for the state as a whole and more than $400,000 in the Triangle.

The Triad has become a destination for some college-educated workers leaving coastal cities. Along with her husband, who worked for Nike, Melissa Binder left Portland, Ore., in 2019 for Winston-Salem to raise their child. They bought their house for $315,000 in 2019, and Ms. Binder said it offered more space than the house they owned in Portland.

After renting in New York’s West Village for several years, Julia and Ryan Hennessee knew they wanted a home to raise a family. In 2018, they chose Winston-Salem to be close to Mr. Hennessee’s family and bought a single-family home for $445,000.

The Hennessees said they welcomed the growth offered by the arrival of companies like Toyota. At the same time, they want Winston-Salem to retain the smaller-town charm that drew them to the region — as well as the cost of living — and not become like other Southern cities.

“Winston knows how it’s different from a place like Atlanta, and doesn’t have aspirations of becoming that,” Ms. Hennessee said.

Julia and Ryan Hennessee moved to Winston-Salem from New York City in 2018.
The Triad has become a destination for some college-educated workers leaving coastal cities.

But for others in the Triad, particularly in more rural parts like Liberty, the transition could prove more challenging.

Brenda Hornsby Heindl, a librarian in Liberty, said the Toyota plant could improve the town’s fortunes. But primary education in the county remains underfunded, she said, and literacy levels are lower than the state average.

“While my goal for the future of our community is that anyone could apply as an engineer at Toyota, right now we’ve got adults and kids that couldn’t read an application,” Ms. Hornsby Heindl said. “It’s going to take more than Toyota to have that happen.”

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