Naughty or nice? Shunned firm honored

Staff WriterDecember 22, 2005 

The Hillsborough/ Orange County Chamber of Commerce's business of the year sells sex toys, X-rated movies and massagers for private parts.

The award is a sign that PHE Inc., parent company of the popular Adam & Eve brand, has come a long way since 12 years ago, when local ministers picketed its planned move to Hillsborough and decried the ills it would bring to the community.

Margaret Cannell, the chamber's executive director, said PHE is one of the county's top employers, a major taxpayer and a "great corporate citizen."

In the past year, the business has aided nearly 50 local organizations, including the Hillsborough Rotary Club, the Animal Protection Society of Orange County, the Family Violence Prevention Center of Orange County, the Hillsborough Firefighters Association, Duke Community Hospice Services and Friends of the Orange County Senior Center.

The chamber's board of directors chooses the winner from community nominations. Robbin Taylor-Hall, the chamber's president, said the board focused on PHE's civic contributions, not its product line.

"We didn't have any problem giving them the award," she said. "We don't look at some of the items they sell."

Those items include videos such as "Booty Climax 2," sugar-free lubricant in Choo-Choo Cherry and Mischievous Melon, and a very creative molding kit.

PHE Inc. landed in Hillsborough's Meadowlands industrial park 11 years ago after a long battle to move its warehouse and mail order operations from a smaller space near Carrboro. It operates out of a three-story brick building with a subtle PHE sign outside. Products cannot be purchased at the facility, only by mail.

When PHE announced its move to Hillsborough, local ministers warned that the town could become the "pornography capital of the South," and as many as 400 people attended a rally protesting the planned move. After raucous public hearings at which the company was compared to a hog, a moral cancer and a toxic chemical plant, a court overruled the town's denial of needed permits, and the company opened its new facility in November 1994. Today it has about 325 employees there.

Phil Harvey, president of PHE, said he hadn't anticipated the resistance when he made plans to move to Hillsborough, but he thinks the award shows that the company, with $70 million in annual sales, has been accepted by the community.

"I'm delighted," said Harvey, who also runs DKT International, a nonprofit focused on family planning and AIDS prevention. "I think that it shows that our very concerted efforts at being a good neighbor and a good employer have borne fruit."

But PHE hasn't won everyone over.

David Smith, the pastor of Hillsborough's Abundant Life Church, was one of the leaders of the opposition. On Wednesday, he said even if PHE gave all of its profits to charity, "it would not mitigate the moral pollution they're responsible for.

"I feel today, as I did then, that it's a despicable industry, and the materials they disseminate are vile beyond description," Smith said. "And the thought that the community leaders would countenance and even applaud an establishment such as that is very disturbing."

Staff writer Lisa Hoppenjans can be reached at 932-2014 or lisa.hoppenjans@newsobserver.com.

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