The Durham-Chapel Hill Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) consists of four counties: Durham, Orange, Person, and Chatham. Person, an outlying county, is included due to having “a high degree of social and economic integration (as measured by commuting to work) with the urban core.”
Person County, and the three other “halo” counties that border the Triangle to the north, offer benefits, such as a sense of place, affordability, and less traffic, that are rapidly being lost here in the Triangle, but they struggle to compete economically with their urban neighbors. Out of those struggles is emerging a creativity and commitment to community that I find admirable.
With a population that is only half that of the town of Chapel Hill, Person County and the town of Roxboro have a jointly developed economic development plan for growing an advanced industrial base to offset the losses of the textile and tobacco industries that were historically their bread and butter. Advanced manufacturing, defined as the integration of new innovative technologies in the production of products and processes, will bring desperately needed higher salaries to the county where unemployment remains higher than the state average.
In 2015, the county purchased 181 acres for an industrial park. Last month, they sold the last remaining space to one of the largest non-woven fabric manufacturers in the world. There are 19 new factories opening in the United States this year, 12 of them are in North Carolina and at least two of those are in Person County. In the past five years the county has recruited $500 million in new capital investment, growth that helps keep the local tax rates affordable.
Their economic development plan depends heavily on partnerships with N.C. State University, Piedmont Community College, and the local school district. That formal plan is also being supplemented by local residents who are kicking in their personal wealth to help reinvigorate their uptown business district in Roxboro.
During one short lunch stop at the Snappy Café (previously named Toufie’s Eatwell Café) in uptown Roxboro, I met three town natives who have returned to town after extended absences and invested in its growth. Another family with a large, local agribusiness has purchased the under-utilized Chevrolet showroom on Main Street and is converting it into a 10,000 square foot mini-mall that will house a restaurant, retail and office spaces, as well as public restrooms (you can’t build a tourist industry without public restrooms!).
The uptown of Roxboro may not have the bustle of Franklin Street, but through their Main Street Partnership the beautiful old buildings are being repurposed for modern-day use such as urban apartments over retail businesses, a business incubator, and a soon-to-open farm to table restaurant.
The key to attracting an advanced manufacturing base and the associated higher salaries is a skilled local workforce. Advanced manufacturing shifts the skill requirements for the local workforce from low-skilled to high. These new jobs demand college and post-graduate degrees.
The community has some educational challenges but is facing them head on. They’ve increased their local salary supplement for teachers, and they’ve invested in a highly regarded college preparatory charter school (Roxboro Community School). And Piedmont Community College, an active partner in all this planning, is now offering an associate’s degree in Mechatronics Engineering Technology.
Person County, like most other rural counties in the state, faces a mix of challenges and benefits. For example, while the local average salary ($37,092) is significantly lower than that of its MSA partners ($60,766), so is its overall cost of living. A dollar goes farther in Person than in Orange. Although its distance from an interstate highway presents logistical challenges for industries like agribusiness that rely on shipping, that distance also helps keep the cost of living low. And while they have a wealth of existing building stock, that stock does not meet the needs of their targeted industries. Most significantly, they have recruited new industries but fewer of their citizens are employed.
If you’ve never visited Person County (“Everything’s Better in Person”) or the town of Roxboro, you’ve been missing out. The rolling hills are home to horse farms, tobacco fields, and small crossroads, like Prospect Hill, that retain elements of their historical character. But they are also home to far-sighted planners who are doing their best to ensure that their residents benefit from proximity to the Triangle.
You can reach Terri Buckner at Tbuckner306@gmail.com. Tell us what you think about today’s commentary at email@example.com. Please include your name for publication.