‘Strong human capital and innovation:’ How Bladen County has created plans for future development

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories that provide an overview of the economies of Bladen, Columbus, Robeson, and Scotland counties in southeastern North Carolina.

Track hoe in Bladen County on top of rubble.
A track hoe demolishes a section of downtown Bladenboro that was destroyed by flood from Hurricane Florence. A revitalization project will restore the business district. Photo by Les High

Bladen County has been trying to develop its economy through workforce training, revitalization projects, and partnerships with nonprofit real estate organizations. These efforts have been working and have brought in both large companies and the average entrepreneur.

 Bladen County Economic Development Commission Director Chuck Heustess
Bladen County Economic Development Commission Director Chuck Heustess

“Where we’ve had a lot of success over the past 20 years has been growing small industries in the Elizabethtown Industrial Park,” said Bladen County Economic Development Commission Director Chuck Heustess. 

These industries include behemoths like Smithfield Foods and smaller companies like Westwood Robotic Technologies, which specializes in fabrication and plastic cutting, and Del-Ton, a firearms manufacturing company. 

Several companies have even expanded, resulting in the investment of millions of dollars and the creation of hundreds of jobs, according to Heustess. These jobs benefit not only Bladen County residents, but also residents across the Border Belt, as many employees commute to Bladen County for work.

The key to this success has been Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial LLC, which Leon Martin founded approximately 20 years ago. The organization aims to help economic development by acquiring industrial buildings to sell or lease to incoming companies, according to Heustess. “One of the things we try to be is one of the very best places to start up a small manufacturing operation,” he said. “That real estate development has allowed us to be successful.”

Smithfield Foods plant in Tar Heel, NC
Smithfield Foods plant in Tar Heel is the largest hog processing plant in the world.

Leon Martin argues that Bladen’s Bloomin’ “is the biggest asset we have,” he said. “If Bladen’s Bloomin is not involved, it usually doesn’t happen.”

Leon Martin Bladen’s founder of Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial LLC
Leon Martin, founder of Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial LLC

Bladen’s Bloomin’ innovation helps North Carolina’s Southeast market Bladen County, as the other Border Belt counties have I-95 and U.S. 74 for quick distribution of companies’ products, according to Steve Yost, president of North Carolina’s Southeast. North Carolina’s Southeast is a public/private organization that helps support and market economic development in 18 counties of the state’s southeast quadrant. “They’re a little more isolated in terms of being close to an interstate-level highway,” Yost said. 

While Bladen’s Bloomin’ has helped provide industrial buildings, the county still doesn’t have enough spaces for prospective companies, according to Heustess. More buildings are especially important as the county emphasizes workforce development. 

“In order to be successful at continuing to attract and grow businesses, we need to continue to develop new products that would be in new quality industrial buildings. We need more infrastructure,” Heustess said. “We have businesses right now that need employees but are not going to continue to grow if we can’t get more qualified workers.”

Top 10 employers in Bladen County North Carolina

Making sacrifices to get training

In response, Heustess has been working to promote the attractiveness of a manufacturing career within the community. “A lot of times it’s not the first thought of people,” he said. “They don’t realize that manufacturing companies need engineers; they need people that can do all types of maintenance.”

One way Heustess has accomplished this is by partnering with Bladen Community College, which now offers certificate training in machining. “We’re going to need a lot of machinists in the next few years to not only accommodate expansions in industries, but also to find replacements once people retire,” Heustess said. “We haven’t gotten as many students as we would like.”

Amanda Lee, president of Bladen Community College

Approximately 466 students graduated from Bladen Community College in 2019, according to North Carolina’s Southeast. 

Amanda Lee, president of Bladen Community College, believes Bladen County will grow. “I think we are really well poised to do some growth with our existing employers as well as bring in new employers,” she said. “We are certainly trying to stay very attuned to what our local employers are needing.”

Workforce development is a way in which the college can help. “We are struggling to connect the potential employee to the employer and trying to get the word out about jobs that are available,” Lee said. “We are also trying to find a workforce that is willing to make sacrifices while they get trained.” 

Bladen Community College has started offering financial aid packages in order to help students take advantage of these opportunities, according to Lee.

Greg Martin, Bladen County Manager
Greg Martin, Bladen County Manager

Because of this training, Bladen County “has a group of smart, hard-working elected officials and business- and community-minded leaders who are willing to work together to make strategic investment for the betterment of Bladen County,” said County Manager Greg Martin. 

The occupations that NC’s Southeast predicts will bring the most jobs are building and ground maintenance; production; transportation and material moving; construction and extraction; and installation, maintenance, and repair. 

On average, Bladen County residents earn approximately $44,000 per year, according to North Carolina’s Southeast. 

Expansion plans

The key to marketing economic development in Bladen County is focusing on the county’s “strong human capital and innovation,” Yost said.

Greg Martin added that Bladen County also continues to invest in economic development by entering into incentive grant agreements with new or expanding industries. 

Charles Peterson, chair of the Bladen County Board of Commissioners, agreed. “We’ll do anything in our power to secure them. Anybody who wants to come, we’ll try to help you start your business or your industry,” he said. 

Charles Peterson, Bladen County commissioners chair
Charles Peterson, Bladen County commissioners chair

A number of companies are looking to move from the North, according to Peterson. This is why widening N.C. 87 through Bladen County is one of his priorities. Improving the highway could create a better connector to I-95, as well as to Wilmington and its port.

“We’re trying to get N.C. 87 four-laned all the way to Wilmington,” Peterson said. “We have plenty of room for growth. We think widening N.C. 87 would help us.”

With this widening project, Bladen County plans to add additional industrial facilities, according to Greg Martin. A significant downtown revitalization project is underway in Bladenboro that involves a number of local partners working together.

The Bladenboro project will see the construction of a commercial center above the floodplain, with two buildings of approximately 6,000 square feet each. The center will bring eight small businesses back to downtown after hurricanes Matthew and Florence caused massive damage, according to Heustess. “We’re very excited about that, about working with the Town of Bladenboro to boost the ‘Boro.” 

Leon Martin noted that he would like to see access to more natural gas in the area. “It would really help if we had natural gas in the industrial park, the Curtis Brown Airport and Elizabethtown,” he said. “There are some industries that need natural gas. If we don’t have it, that takes us off the list.”

Overall, county leaders argue that Bladen County has plenty of advantages. “Bladen County is the prettiest part of the world,” Peterson said. “It’s just a wonderful place for someone to invest in and come raise their children.”

Ivey Schofield
Ivey Schofield

Ivey Schofield is a staff writer at Border Belt Independent.