Though both thoroughfares would make ideal locations for any number of businesses, Cary’s Weston Parkway and Daniel Drive in Tarboro would likely never be mistaken for each other.
Weston Parkway boasts one of the Research Triangle Region’s more prominent new corporate residents: MetLife. In February, the insurer began moving employees into the first of its two new office towers as part of its Global Technology & Operations Center. MetLife’s 40-acre campus in Cary will soon house 1,300 workers.
About an hour east, General Foam Plastics Corporation is well into an equally exciting new venture, expanding its already-large manufacturing operations on Daniel Drive. The Virginia-based company makes a host of decorative consumer products – from artificial Christmas trees to backyard garden fountains. It selected Tarboro last year for the expansion, and the company is investing $2.3 million in machinery and equipment there and hiring another 100 full-time workers.
Though their businesses and backdrops bear little resemblance to each other, General Foam Plastics and MetLife are two companies with something rare in common. Both are here in part because of North Carolina’s Job Development & Investment Grant program.
MetLife announced its plans two years ago to great public fanfare. Running parallel to its presence in Cary is an equally large and economically powerful one in Charlotte. Taken together, the company’s two facilities will employ 2,600 and are eligible for as much as $87.2 million in JDIG awards across 12 years – assuming MetLife’s job-creation targets are met.
In contrast, few heard about General Foam Plastics or its plans. The 50-year-old manufacturer selected Tarboro for its expansion after local economic developers and town officials worked aggressively to align the Daniel Drive location with the company’s strategic business goals. Like most manufacturers, General Foam needs access to reliable and reasonably priced power.
Officials in Tarboro worked to assure the company that its energy requirements would be met. The town would invest in an industrial-grade generator to augment grid-supplied power during peak load period – hot summer afternoons, for example, when price spikes might otherwise force the company to suspend production or risk a budget-busting utility bill. General Foam purchases the power that comes off the town’s generator, and other Tarboro employers may also buy electricity and save similarly during high-demand periods.
The town purchased the generator in part with $750,000 from the state’s Industrial Development - Utility Fund, an account earmarked for rural infrastructure needs. The source of the Utility Fund cash is modest amounts withheld from JDIGs for projects locating in urban communities like Cary. In the case of MetLife, for example, as much as $29 million in new money will be channeled into the Utility Fund and made available for towns like Tarboro to help companies like General Foam Plastics.
The General Assembly enacted JDIG in 2002 as a way to spur higher-wage job growth in North Carolina. Performance-based and self-funded, JDIG awards are tied to personal income-tax withholdings, in essence handing a portion of newly created tax-base back to employers once jobs are created. As evidenced by the presence of MetLife and many other companies now here, JDIG has succeeded. Yes, many of these big names are in urban areas. But prescient legislators anticipated this, wisely establishing the Utility Fund as a way of spreading JDIG’s impact as widely as possible.
When JDIGs are awarded to companies such as MetLife, 25 percent of the approved disbursement flows into the Utility Fund and is set aside for the state’s most economically needy counties (“Tier One”); 15 percent is held apart for slightly better-off Tier Two communities. Since JDIG’s beginning, the Utility Fund has awarded more than $28 million to county and municipal governments in rural North Carolina. Indeed, 73 percent of that cash has gone to Tier One counties.
General Foam Plastics is one of 70 projects in rural North Carolina that have been supported by the Utility Fund, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. In our region, projects in Franklin, Lee, Nash and Wilson counties also spurred job growth when the Utility Fund paid for access roads, extended sewer systems and other infrastructure upgrades.
More can be done, and perhaps more will be done as lawmakers, the media and the public become aware of the links that can exist between companies like MetLife and General Foam Plastics and the synergies sparked by places as different as Tarboro and Cary. North Carolina needs job-creation policies that support the success of all these companies and communities.
At the moment, JDIG is among the few ties binding them.
Charles Hayes is president and CEO of Research Triangle Regional Partnership.