By Ben Rappaport
From a glass company to an IT service firm, the past two years have brought several major economic development announcements in rural southeastern North Carolina. There’s more on the way, local officials say.
The Border Belt region — Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties — has announced more than $255 million in economic investment totaling 1,115 jobs since 2022, according to the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina.
With the population declining in the region and a slew of layoffs hitting major employers, the need for jobs is becoming increasingly urgent in the economically distressed region. Development officials say the projects underway — and those coming down the pike — may be enough to shift momentum going forward.
Here’s a look at some of the region's biggest economic development projects announced since 2022, along with future projects and the impact beyond dollar signs.
- Companies announced: Two
- Jobs announced: 115
- Predicted economic investment: $24.9 million
Bladen County has been focused on expanding existing facilities. Two longtime manufacturers — Severn Peanut Company and Dynapar — have announced expansion plans in recent years.
Severn, a peanut sheller, said in April that it would invest $17 million and create 44 new jobs at its Elizabethtown factory.
The jobs’ average annual wage will be $41,984, the company said, which is on par with Bladen County’s overall average.
Dynapar, a customized systems solutions company, also announced job increases and building renovations in Elizabethtown two years ago. The company said it would add more than three dozen jobs with an annual salary of $55,000.
In the background of these projects is Elizabethtown’s “live, work, play” strategy, which includes more than $20 million for housing, health care, infrastructure, recreation and economic development.
The plan includes 145 single-family homes and a $365,000 grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation for roads, water, sewer and sidewalks. The town is applying for a $691,000 match from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to complete the projects by the end of the year.
“If Bladen County is going to succeed and grow, the easiest place to have it happen first is Elizabethtown,” Chuck Heustess, Bladen County’s economic development director, previously told the Border Belt Independent. “Then from there, we want to take the success we have and recreate it in other towns.”
- Companies announced: Two
- Jobs announced: 180
- Predicted economic investment: $2.1 million
International Paper and National Spinning — two of the biggest taxpayers in Columbus County — both announced layoffs last year. Together, the companies said they would lay off 300 workers.
But Gary Lanier, director of the Columbus County Economic Development Commission, is bullish on the local economic outlook. One reason for his optimism is Provalus, an information technology company coming to downtown Whiteville.
Provalus plans to invest at least $500,000 and create more than 150 jobs over the next five years. The company is currently hiring in Whiteville, according to its website. And Lanier predicts the final number will be closer to 250 employees, based on the company’s success in other states.
According to the North Carolina Department of Commerce, Provalus will create an economic impact of more than $3.7 million for the region each year.
The county will also see additional investment in Tabor City through DMA Industries, a supplier of aftermarket automotive and heavy-duty replacement parts. The company said it will invest $1.5 million and create 29 new jobs with an average annual salary of $40,824. Columbus County’s overall average annual wage is $38,544. DMA currently has four job openings, according to its website.
At the eastern end of the county at the Brunswick County line, the International Commerce Center is slated for additional growth with a $15 million investment that aims to add 120,000 square feet to the facility.
“We're getting a lot of looks, a lot of companies are visiting,” Lanier said. “Now that structures are completed, we're starting to see a very positive impact for the county.”
These investments are also coupled with several major housing developments in the southeastern portion of the county where developers want to build more than 10,000 homes over the next decade. Conservative estimates say the developments will add nearly 25,000 people to the county, which is now home to about 50,000.
“Growth is good as long as it's well,” Lanier said.”Our commissioners are adamant that they want it done right.”
Looking ahead, Lanier said there are prospective buyers for the National Spinning building in the town of Brunswick near Whiteville. He also said there are four other projects currently in the works.
“Yes, there are some people losing their jobs due to layoffs,” Lanier said “But we are working very diligently to try to help get companies in place that would provide employment opportunities for those people.”
- Companies announced: Four
- Jobs announced: 178
- Predicted economic investment: $37.8 million
Asbury Carbons plans to invest nearly $17 million and create 22 jobs at its Lumberton facility. The jobs will have an average annual salary of $43,864, higher than Robeson County’s overall average annual wage of $37,649.
Atlantic Building, a truss manufacturer, plans to invest $6 million and create 105 jobs in the Fairmont area.
The jobs announcements are coupled with 13 projects currently underway in Robeson County, including Zurn/ Elkay Manufacturing ($42.5 million investment, 48 new jobs); Champion Home Builders, (up to $13.2 million investment and 385 new jobs); and Repac Foam, ($3.9 million investment and 40 new jobs). All three companies are currently hiring.
All told, the projects will yield more than $600 million in investment and about 650 jobs.
At least four other projects are in the works for the county, according to Channing Jones, director of the Robeson County Economic Development Commission. While the details are minimal, he predicted they could yield up to $180 million in investment and around 600 new jobs.
Jones said one of the biggest drivers of economic development will be the growth of UNC Pembroke and Robeson Community College.
“Our workforce providers are a big recruiting arm for our particular community — our university, community college and our public schools,” Jones said. “Beyond that, the expansions of I-95 and I-74 along with our water capacity are only going to help us recruit more investment in the future.”
- Companies announced: Three
- Jobs announced: 642
- Predicted economic investment: $190.3 million
SOPACKO Inc., a food processing and distribution company, is building a processing plant in Laurinburg. When it was announced in 2022, it was the largest economic development project and largest jobs announcement the county had seen in two decades.
The average annual salary at SOPACKO will be more than $45,000, nearly $6,000 more than the county’s average. With more than 400 employees, the project could create a potential annual payroll impact of more than $19.8 million per year for the region.
The project is on track and predicted it would break ground this spring, said Mark Ward, director of the Scotland County Economic Development Corporation.
Two other big projects — Pilkington/NSG, a major glass manufacturer, and Champion Home Builders — are also on track, Ward said. NSG has 12 jobs available, according to Indeed, a job posting website; Champion has 17 job postings.
The specifics are still hush-hush, but Ward said the county is in the running for three more major projects. He said they would bring a minimum of 200 jobs and $100 million in investment and could be announced this year.
Richmond Community College, which has a campus in Laurinburg, is developing specific work training programs to help prepare future employees for new companies.
Scotland County was also one of seven counties in the state to receive a $10 million grant through the Golden LEAF Shell Building Pilot Program to build a 30,000-square-foot commercial building. The site broke ground this year, and once completed, the building at the Scotland Incubator Park in Laurinburg will begin searching for an occupant.
“All of these projects help improve our tax base, which hopefully leads to additional services for everyone,” Ward said. “These announcements also help bring along other quality-of-life items that we need to create a workforce and opportunities outside of work.”