By Rachel Baldauf
At the Southeast Crossroads Industrial Park in Lumberton, the sounds of traffic whizzing by on U.S. 74 are drowned out by the steady clang of excavators and cranes.
Sixty miles to the east along the highway, another business center, International Logistics Park, is expanding its warehouse space at the border of Columbus and Brunswick counties.
And to the west, Chick-fil-A, Starbucks and other fast-food restaurants have breathed new life into the Scotland County town of Laurinburg – an area that has seen lots of business growth in recent years.
Keep up with more news from the Border Belt Independent. Sign up here for our weekly newsletter.
Economic development officials say good things are happening along U.S. 74, the main east-west corridor along North Carolina’s southern border. As the N.C. Department of Transportation continues to upgrade the highway to turn it into an interstate, some say more manufacturing companies will want to take advantage of the easy access to Wilmington and Charlotte.
“There are some companies and businesses that if you don’t have an interstate in your community, you’re not even on their radar,” NCDOT spokesman Andrew Barksdale said.
Robeson County has a distinct advantage: In Lumberton, Interstate 95 crosses a stretch of 74 that is already designated as an interstate. The 215-acre Southeast Crossroads Industrial Park opened at the interchange two months ago and houses a distribution center for Zurn Elkay Water Solutions, the largest manufacturer of stainless steel sinks in the country. The company has created between 80 and 90 jobs.
Space is available for more tenants.
“Companies looking to come to this area specifically choose Robeson County and our neighboring counties because of our great highway systems,” said Channing Jones, Robeson’s economic development director. “The more we invest in those, the better.”
Jones said that’s especially true for manufacturing companies.
In Robeson and Scotland counties, manufacturing is the largest industry, employing over 15 percent of the workforce ages 16 and older.
Columbus County Economic Development Director Gary Lanier said there’s plenty of demand at the International Logistics Park. The park currently leases space to Lowe’s, Tri-Tech Forensics of Brunswick County and Precision Swiss of California.
“It was already fully leased before the roof was finished,” Lanier said.
Cameron Management, the developer of the business park, plans to invest $15 million to nearly double the warehouse space, the Border Belt Independent reported earlier this year.
Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties are designated by the state as Tier 1, or economically distressed. That means they can benefit from state funding to help with economic development.
But it will be years before the entire stretch of 74 through the Border Belt becomes an interstate.
In North Carolina, the eventual plan is for I-74 to run from near Mt. Airy in Surry County to Brunswick County. The exact route and time frame for completion have not yet been determined. NCDOT Director of Strategic Planning and Programming Kevin Lacy said both will depend on several factors, including environmental conditions and input from public hearings.
Beyond North Carolina, the plan is for I-74 to eventually connect Charleston, S.C. to Cleveland, Ohio.
Barksdale said more upgrades along the route will improve driver safety. In the Border Belt, many of the intersections currently under construction require drivers to come to a complete stop before merging onto the four-lane highway where speed limits can reach 60 mph.
“If there’s a gap in both directions, they just gun it and hope they don’t hit anybody,” Barksdale said.
Highway upgrades are currently underway at these locations:
- In Columbus County, work began in 2021 to upgrade the intersection of U.S. 74 and Old Boardman Road to an interchange. The expected cost is $16.2 million, and work is set to be completed by fall 2024.
- Also in Columbus County, construction began last year to convert the U.S. 74/Chauncey Town Road intersection into an interchange. The nearby Old Lake Road intersection is being converted into an overpass. The expected cost of both projects is $44 million, and work is set to be completed by summer 2025.
- In Robeson County, work began in April to upgrade two U.S. 74 intersections – at N.C. 72 and N.C. 130. The expected cost is $24.6 million, and work is set to be completed by summer 2026.
Work is planned at three other sites:
- In Robeson County, construction will begin in 2027 to convert the Creek Road intersection to an interchange. The expected cost is $7.8 million.
- Construction will begin in 2031 to upgrade U.S. 74 Business from east of Hamlet to west of Laurinburg in Scotland County. The estimated cost is $223 million.
- In Columbus County, upgrades are planned from N.C. 41 to where U.S. 74 meets U.S. 76. The estimated cost is $175 million. Construction has not yet been scheduled.
Barksdale said further projects could be added in the years ahead, including a potential upgrade of U.S. 74 from west of Laurinburg to the Maxton area.
Once the route is fully upgraded, NCDOT must seek federal permission to install interstate signage.