Johnston County’s economic future is bright, but the hurdles to job creation are high.
That was the gist of this year’s Johnston County Economic Forum, which drew more than 60 builders and real estate agents who braved falling snow to attend Tuesday’s breakfast event at The Clayton Center.
Johnston will continue to grow thanks to the ever-expanding population of Raleigh, where the number of residents is projected to swell by 50 percent from 2010 to 2030, said Chris Johnson, director of Johnston County Economic Development.
One of Johnston’s major assets is its transportation network, which includes U.S. 70 and interstates 40 and 95, Johnson said. One key for the county will be making sure the state relieves the bottleneck on I-40 by completing the southern portion of the Interstate 540 Outer Loop, he said.
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“If we don’t see that, it’s going stifle growth in Johnston County,” Johnson said. “People are just not going to move here to have to sit in traffic on I-40.”
In addition to highways, Johnston also boasts rail lines that carry freight on tracks that run in all four compass directions. Because of that infrastructure, Johnson said, warehousing and distribution will continue to be the county’s bread and butter going into the future.
Outside of warehousing, Johnson said, other industries that have recently shown interest in locating in the county include manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, a computer company and even one textile maker.
A major obstacle to attracting new investment has been the relative unwillingness of North Carolina to offer economic incentives compared to other states. Citing the New York Times, Johnson said governments around the country gave away at least $80 billion in incentives in 2012, with Texas alone accounting for more than a quarter of that total.
North Carolina often competes with the Lone Star State for new jobs, and Johnson noted that the $22 billion Texas spent on incentives in one year wasn’t much less than North Carolina’s total state budget of $28 billion.
“So basically, the State of Texas almost gave away the State of North Carolina’s annual operating budget to recruit industry,” Johnson said. “That’s what we’re up against as a state.”
But while new companies get the ribbon cuttings and the headlines, Johnson said it is important to remember that existing industries create more than 78 percent of new jobs in the county. And in the last two years, companies already located in Johnston have invested more than $232 million in new money in the county.
From a philosophical standpoint, Johnson compared the work of economic development to fishing. Some people drop a line in the water, open a beer and wait for the fish to come to them. Others get in a boat and never stop adjusting their technique and tools until the fish are practically jumping on the hook.
Johnson said he prefers the more aggressive approach. “I’m going to get my big lure and start traveling around to site planners,” he said. “I want to be out there with the rod and reel, changing up the bait, making sure that we’re in front of everybody.”