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Caldwell faces challenges but business leaders see shift

Jul 17, 2023

Caldwell County's economic development director discusses industrial opportunities in the county. Video by Kevin Griffin

When it comes to development in Caldwell County, there are a number of factors that make things difficult.

County Manager Donald Duncan offers a football analogy. In a normal football game, a team has to get 10 yards for the first down. Duncan said Caldwell County has to go farther.

“It’s first and 12. It’s not first and 10 in Caldwell County,” Duncan said. “Everything is harder. Everything is more difficult. Whether it’s funding schools, whether it’s building, roads, communities, you name it because our tax base is that much less.”

Duncan noted Caldwell County’s tax base is challenged because about 22% of the county’s land is part of a national forest or other protected areas.

That’s one issue, but Duncan points to some others, as well. The hilly topography of the county, especially as Caldwell rises toward the town of Blowing Rock, can make finding locations for development difficult. All the easy sites — those with the right amount of land and access to utilities and infrastructure, among other factors — are taken.

Infrastructure is another concern. Much of it is old, he said, and the upkeep of water and sewer systems is necessary. Duncan credited the CARES Act passed during the COVID-19 pandemic with providing needed funding for addressing some of those needs.

Duncan also pointed to the cost. He lamented the fact that infrastructure was not built under U.S. 321 when the highway was constructed. The work would have been less costly then, he said. Duncan estimates the cost now is about $1,000 per foot.

Carolina Precision Components Chairman Randy Walker discusses the need for more young people in trade occupations. Video by Kevin Griffin.

Like other areas of the region, the question of how to grow and develop is of critical importance because of negative population trends and projections.

The county lost nearly 2,400 people between the 2010 and 2020 censuses. Over the next 20 years, the county’s population is expected to remain largely flat, according to information from the N.C. State Demographer.

Amid all these challenges, the county is looking for ways to capitalize on what they have.

One of the biggest initiatives now is the development of Evergreene. Duncan said it is the first industrial park developed as a partnership between the county and a municipality — in this case, the town of Sawmills.

He said the county has already received interest in the 30-acre site off U.S. 321 Alternate.

“All we’ve done is done rough grading — not even rough grading, removing the organic materials off the site — and then we already have customers,” Duncan said. “I’m not even sure we’ll get to the spec building stage. Not for lack of trying but for more of the demand in the market may snatch it up before we even get a building built.”

Caldwell County Economic Development Director Ashley Bolick said the county is looking at other industrial opportunities, as well. She said the county is currently working with the Western Piedmont Council of Governments to survey potential industrial properties in Caldwell County.

The area around the Foothills Regional Airport is of particular interest to county and regional leaders. Bolick said Caldwell County, along with Lenoir, Burke County and Morganton, are conducting a feasibility and marketing study for more than 800 acres of land near the airport.

“There are some limitations there with water and sewer and gas. I mean, we’re kind of at the end of the line for everybody,” Bolick said. “So, what’s the best use of that land and who should we be marketing that property to?”

She said the traditional industries of furniture and textiles remain important for the economy even if they are not operating at the same scale they once did. She also said some of the most noteworthy development in the last decade has taken place in newer industries such as pharmaceuticals.

Bolick gave the example of Exela Pharma Sciences. The Lenoir company grew from 12 workers to more than 600 employees. “The expansion of pharma sciences in Caldwell County as an employment sector has probably been one of our greatest achievements in the last decade,” Bolick said.

The county has also seen some good news recently where Merchants Distributors Inc., the county’s largest employer, is concerned. In 2020, MDI announced a $120 million expansion that would create at least 111 jobs. Earlier this year, the grocery wholesale company committed to an additional 125 jobs.

The company has entered into incentive agreements with Hickory and other local governments for these expansions.

Jesse Plaster, 50, has lived all but about 15 years of his life in Caldwell County. He has roots in the community. He says his mother lives in his great-grandfather’s home.

Plaster notes the dark times in Caldwell County where the loss of furniture jobs and the 2008 recession led to what he calls “a countywide depression.”

He says the mood is different now.

Happy Valley Filling Station co-owners Jesse Plaster, left, and Angela Postigo say they see a sense of optimism in Caldwell County. The duo said they also believe there could be more support for local businesses during their early stages.

“The feeling I get now is that, I feel a rebirth in the community,” Plaster said. “I’m also active downtown. I do a lot of redevelopment work there myself, and I’m seeing a renewed interest in the downtown. I feel like people are more optimistic now than they have been for the last 10 to 15 years.”

Plaster, an architect by trade, has been involved in several renovations of historic downtown buildings along with business partner Angela Postigo.

Postigo, 46, moved to Morganton from San Francisco in 2017.

She was working for Williams-Sonoma and nearing her retirement from the company when she decided she was looking for a slower pace of living. She had come to know about North Carolina after spending time in the state as part of her job.

Postigo echoes Plaster when it comes to the sense of optimism in Caldwell County, saying she has talked to locals who have come around to have a more positive view of the community.

Plaster and Postigo entered the hospitality industry in late 2021 when they opened Happy Valley Filling Station brewery and pizzeria.

A Dollar General discount store had shown interest in the site. Plaster and Postigo said they thought the business was a bad fit for the area. Wanting to open a business that could serve as a sort of community hub, they made an offer on the land and were ultimately successful in buying it.

They said they have seen growth in the business since it began and noted that residents from surrounding counties have patronized the establishment.

Carolina Precision

Farther south in the Sawmills community of Caldwell County, Carolina Precision Components Chairman Randy Walker also voiced optimism about the county.

Like Plaster, Walker, 71, is a Caldwell County native who has spent all but a few years of his life there.

He started Carolina Precision Components, which manufactures a wide range of parts and components for industry, in 1995. The business was originally located near Drexel and moved to its Sawmills location in 2007.

Carolina Precision Components produces parts for the construction equipment, industrial machinery, material handling and telecommunications industries out of a 63,000-square-foot facility.

Carolina Precision Components Chairman Randy Walker stands in the workroom of the company's manufacturing building in Sawmills. Walker said he is happy with the leadership of state and county officials but has some concerns about lack of interest in trade jobs among young people.

Walker said the company makes parts “as small as the tip of your finger to parts that can weigh over a ton.”

While the company has often had difficulty finding employees already trained in the specific computer numerical control machines the company uses, he said the manufacturing focus of the area has allowed him to find good people he can train.

Walker also noted a bit of concern with the economy, saying some of his clients have seen a slowdown in demand while others are being more cautious. He attributes this to rising interest rates and trends in the broader economy. Even so, Walker said he has been able to keep the 45 employees who currently work for the company.

When it comes to local leadership, however, Walker has strong praise.

“I have the idea that our county leadership and our state leadership want to help me, want to help Carolina Precision Components,” Walker said. “They’re not trying to be a hindrance, they’re trying to be a helpmate in us providing good jobs for people and growing good, clean, environmentally responsible jobs.”

Walker said one area of concern for him involves finding ways to interest young people in the fields of manufacturing, machining, welding and related trades.

“Those kind of things, they’re not attracting as many high school students as they once did. So that does concern me,” Walker said. “I’m not blaming anybody for it, and I don’t know what the answer is, but we need to get the word out that there’s great careers in some of the trade skills.”

Scott McKown, a machine operator at Carolina Precision Components, checks aluminum parts at the company's Sawmills production plant.

Duncan is of like mind when it comes to need to maintain Caldwell County’s manufacturing heritage. Making stuff, Duncan said, is simply part of the area’s DNA. He said ensuring that the area’s young people are vested in the county’s economy is a major priority.

Duncan recalled a conversation with leaders from Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute and the Caldwell County school system.

“I said, ‘Our goal, unequivocally, is that we have about 1,100 students, 1,200 students graduate high school a year, every year. Half of those need to be engaged in this economy before they walk across this stage. They have to be in apprenticeships, internships or already working somewhere so they understand that that is what pays the bills.’”

From the small business perspective, Plaster and Postigo said they would like to see more local programs geared toward helping small businesses get through the initial phases. Plaster said their business was not a good fit for existing programs which included number of jobs created as a major criterion.

Postigo said the need for a greater variety of businesses is a common topic of discussion among locals and that grants or other support for small businesses could aid in fostering more local retail options.

She also mentioned that she and Plaster were part of Startup High Country, a Boone-based group for entrepreneurs, and that having a similar group in Caldwell County would be helpful.

“The Chamber of Commerce is nice,” Postigo said. “You know, everyone is a part of that, but I think it’s so big that you kind of get lost in the shuffle because it’s kind of up to you to kind of find out what is going on and this is just a smaller, tight-knit group that are like entrepreneurs.”

Plaster said burdensome alcohol regulations have also been a hassle for the business.

Happy Valley Filling Station brewery and pizzeria owners talking about the need to support local business. Video by Kevin Griffin

“It’s just one of those limitations that kind of puts a chokehold on business,” Plaster said. “There are not a lot of people that would go to the trouble of getting a second TTB and ABC permit just to be able to sell someone a bottle of wine.”

He also said he would like to see local government leaders think about their approach to things such as taxes and investment in the community.

“Caldwell’s always been known for having a low tax rate and that’s great and that attracts and retains some people but it also maybe neglects building infrastructure and maintaining the facilities that we already have,” Plaster said. “I think the county’s been on sort of damage control for the last 20 years and it’s time to start looking a little more forward and thinking about shaping the development for the next 20 years.”

Duncan said the county does have some ideas when it comes to shaping development in the future. One of these long-range plans is the transformation of the railroad from a liability into an asset.

Happy Valley Filling Station co-owners Jesse Plaster, center, and Angela Postigo, right, speak with brewer Aaron Dowling at the brewery, located in the same building as the restaurant.

Specifically, he said the project would improve the railroad service in the county and use the corridor as a conduit for infrastructure.

Part of that vision also involves nearby Appalachian State University's Hickory campus, set to open in a few weeks. Duncan said the railroad could enable the growth of the campus by transporting students and services.

He sees the purpose of these and other projects as strengthening the regional economy and protecting against the sort of downturns that have harmed the area in the past.

“The objective is to make the Hickory Metro area — all four counties — recession-proof,” Duncan said. “We’re going to build enough amenities, enough infrastructure and create enough workforce to where, no matter what happens, we’re ready.”

Catawba County has been the heavy lifter when it comes to growth in the region. The 2020 Census showed the county gaining about 6,200 residents. However, the overall regional population declined by more than 200 as a result of losses in Caldwell, Burke and Alexander counties.

Even as the Western Piedmont Council of Governments encourages local governments to target growth in the range of 1%-2% annually, the N.C. State Demographer projects Alexander, Burke and Caldwell counties will see slight declines in population over the next 20 years.

As Catawba County focuses on growth, at least some leaders have said there needs to be growth in the other three counties, as well.

Hickory City Manager Warren Wood told members of the Hickory City Council during a retreat in April: “I tell managers in other areas of the region, we can’t grow so much to offset all that. I mean, we don’t want to. But everybody has to find a way to move the needle.”

This series of articles explores the status quo in Alexander, Burke and Caldwell counties, the challenges these communities face when it comes to development and the things they are doing to move the needle.

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Caldwell County's economic development director discusses industrial opportunities in the county. Video by Kevin Griffin

Carolina Precision