Changing the Face of Five Counties

North Carolina's Kerr-Tar Hub creates an innovative solution for economic development needs.

By Don Hampton

It didn't surprise anyone when the Kerr-Tar Regional Council of Governments received a 2004 Innovation Award from the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO).

NADO President Gary Gorshing commented that this year's award recipients “truly represent the community and economic development benefits of acting regionally, especially in rural communities where resources are often sparse.”

That truly describes the Kerr-Tar Hub. The project brings together five rural North Carolina counties (Franklin, Granville, Person, Vance and Warren) in a cooperative effort to create a technology center to attract business.

“The hub will link the combined assets of five rural counties to the technology centers of the Research Triangle,” says Kerr-Tar Regional Council of Governments (COG) representative Rick Seekins.

A business magnet

The “mini-hub,” as it is called, will serve as a magnet to draw business to the region through the combined efforts of the five counties.

“It will give our five-county area a marketable product that none of us can afford to create alone,” said Allen Kimball, economic developer for Warren County.

The mini-hub will seek to attract companies making advanced products by providing training services, facilities and networks to help them remain globally competitive.

The five counties in the Kerr-Tar region see this project as a substantial opportunity to create a significant economic impact. These counties have not been part of the growth that has occurred in the Research Triangle region and local workers have been forced to commute to the more prosperous neighboring communities.

Local leaders believe the Kerr-Tar Hub could change all that.

The mini-hub is different from traditional industrial or technology parks. It is a “meta-park,” focused on businesses that use skilled labor to make advanced products.

A mini-hub is a regional resource, connecting several counties and multiple business occupants.

An academic challenge

The project grew out of a study conducted by the University of North Carolina's Office of Economic Development for the Research Triangle Regional Partnership. The study, which was completed in March 2003, was conducted to determine the feasibility of creating a series of “mini-hubs” to stimulate growth and investment in rural areas.

The university recommended that the creation of two or three “mid-tech parks” in the region would encourage spin-off development. These mid-tech parks would accommodate businesses that use skilled labor to make advanced products.

The hubs would offer:

· Land at reasonable rates.

· Traditional park infrastructure (access roads, utilities, etc.).

· Special enhancements, such as meeting and conference facilities, advanced information technology, laboratories, and training.

In addition, the park should include “attractive green space, on-site college training, high-tech conferencing capability and recreational facilities,” added Phil Baer of the Person County Economic Development Commission.

Acting upon the university's recommendation, local government leaders created an Exploratory Committee to develop an implementation plan. The counties are acting upon a history of collaboration to ensure shared benefits and costs for the hub.

“The Kerr-Tar Region is out front of the others in the state by moving forward on a collaborative multi-county effort,” said Bill McNeil, director of community assistance for the North Carolina Department of Commerce.

Taking investment seriously

The counties have embarked on an aggressive plan to make the hub a reality. Within months of the study recommendations, four work groups were formed and operating to create a plan. The work groups represent a partnership between local economic development groups, community leaders, and the educational community.

Each county realizes that the project will require time and money. They are all willing to share the costs and rewards. But there is truly a deeper sense that the hub will bring benefits that none of the counties could experience without the collaborative.

“This is going to be a long-term project,” said Granville County Economic Developer Leon Turner. “Plowing new ground will require open minds and patience.”

The next phase includes site identification.

“Now we're getting down to the hard decisions,” said Neil Mallory, the executive director of the COG.

The selection process began with each county recommending its best site for consideration. The site will be chosen primarily on location advantages and cost to develop to a “shovel-ready” point, as well as the size of the tract, degrees of public control of land, utility capacity, and the economic condition of the host county. A team of engineering and consulting companies will evaluate the sites and create a recommended order for development over the coming years.

“The hub site should be far enough away from the Research Triangle to serve as a new hub for rural job creation,” added Sam Watkins of the Vance County Economic Development Commission.

Part of the site prioritization process has several consulting firms working with the North Carolina Department of Commerce to certify each of the five sites as “development-ready.” The certification program is a statewide initiative to help market sites for commercial development.

The funding for site development is falling into place. The project has received funds from the US Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration ($250,000), a Community Development Block Grant ($180,000) and the Region K Workforce Development Board ($50,000).

A recommendation on site prioritization is expected by the end of the 2004.

Making news

People around the state are watching the progress of the Kerr-Tar Hub. It represents a new way of thinking about economic development. The project has already been successful in drawing the attention of groups like NADO, as well as pulling together the local governments of five rural counties.

The initiative is creating buzz by setting a new standard for collaboration. And, even more importantly, it should result in an outstanding hub that will dramatically change the face of the region.