• Allen Turner

Edwards says time has come for growth


Rick Edwards has a tough time hiding his enthusiasm. “I feel very good about Columbus County,” the president of the Columbus Jobs Foundation (CJF) said Wednesday. “Our time has come. There’s no question.”

On the heels of a June 2 annual dinner meeting of the Columbus Jobs Foundation – formerly the Columbus county Committee of 100.

Edwards says,
“There was a lot 
of vim and vigor
at that meeting be
cause of the young
er people ages 28 to 
41 who have gotten 
involved. We’ve got
to put our young
people on these
boards all over the
county, every board
in the county, be-
cause the future
of our county is in 
their hands, and I 
think that bringing 
them in as an important accomplishment.”

At that meeting, members voted to add to the board of directors by adding six younger members: Jordan Carter, a banker with BB&T; Matt McLean, CPA and manager of S. Preston Douglas; Dr. Janice Timothee, a orthodontist- with Timothee Orthodonics; attorney Boyd Worley; postmaster and Chadbourn town councilman Rashad Roberts; and George Wooten Jr. of W.E. Bailey Produce.

Edwards says that, working as a team, the CJF board will bring economic development efforts here to the highest level ever. “What I like about what’s happened with the Jobs Foundation is that you can now feel a positive spirit in the county, a spirit that things are turning,” Edwards says. “Instead of being negative, people are talking positive. It’s just positive vibes. I feel it all over the county, and when we first started this, there were no positive vibes. It was all negative so, if we’ve done anything, it’s been to put a positive spin on what we have, and we do have a lot to offer.”

Renowned NCSU economist Dr. Michael Walden was the speaker at the recent CJF dinner and he predicted an era of economic resurgence in rural North Carolina, something that was music to Edwards’ ears.

“I was tickled to death with Dr. Walden’s predictions, more than tickled,” smiles Edwards, citing three major developments: Radix- Bay, an information technology company locating to Tabor City, progress toward getting a manufacturer at the former Georgia-Pacific site, and the infusion of youth into the foundation.

RadixBay is a boutique information technology company headquartered in Charlotte and headed by Greg Lovett, a Columbus County native who grew up between Tabor City and Fair Bluff. They currently are renovating the former Brunswick Electric incubator building in the Tabor City Industrial Park.

“Once it’s finished,” Ed- wards says, “it’s going to be like you were walking into an office building in Raleigh or Charlotte. It’s going to be ultra-modern.”

Edwards admits to some frustration at efforts to get an industrial tenant in the former Georgia Pacific plant between Whiteville and Chadbourn “because we’ve been ‘that’ close for a while.” However, he says, “We’re still working (on situating) a manufacturer there, and we are very near to closing this deal out.”

In addition, an ancillary company wants to be located near there to service the business that will be locating at Georgia Pacific.

“The manufacturer told me yesterday that they will employ as many as 180 on the G-P site, and that the ancillary business will employ as many as 25. We’re still working with both of these companies to make it happen.”

Edwards expects an announcement sometime soon, probably in the next 60 days. “I don’t think we can drag it out much longer. The company has requested some money from both the public and private sectors for economic incentives in the form of some type of loan, and we’re beginning our due diligence to see whether we can make that happen,” he says. He is optimistic.

If that manufacturer be- gins operations here, it will utilize R.J. Corman Rail- road, which recently restored freight rail service here after a hiatus of several years under the former owner of the rail line. “Both the manufacturer wanting to come to the G-P property and the ancillary company each are projected to move two whole trainloads of 100 cars of product every week,” Edwards said. “If you do four trainloads a week from Whiteville, it will turn that railroad from a red number to a black number.”

Edwards says that the deal for the G-P site probably never would have gotten off the ground without the relationship the CJF forged with the manufacturer’s CEO and management team. “With- out that, I seriously doubt these guys would be hanging around,” he says.

“The Columbus Jobs Foundation is about one thing: building relationships. Building relationships with these guys is the heart of the matter.”

In many places, when a potential industry arrives to investigate locating there, Edwards says that in most cases those visiting executives are taken to fast food places for meals as they tour the area. “Not in Columbus County,” Edwards says. “We treat them to a first class venue and we make them feel comfortable.

“And when local business and professional people surround those visiting CEOs and executive team members, they can communicate with those guys better than government people because they’ve experienced the same issues that the visitors have experienced, so we can re- ally relate, and that makes the industrial prospects feel welcomed and it just makes them feel good.”

He feels the next biggest thing to happen with the CJF is the infusion of youth into the organization. He says, “At our annual meeting you could tell the young professionals had arrived, and it was a good feeling.”

Edwards also is excited about the possibility of establishing a new industrial park on the eastern end of Columbus County. “We’ve already met with landowners in the Delco area, and we’re going to try and develop a 150- acre industrial park there,” he says.

“That would be in addition to a joint Columbus/Brunswick County park near the county line. “We’re getting ready to apply for infrastructure grants for both of those parks,” he says.

In another major development possibility near the end of 2015, the county was approached by an agriculture company expressing interest in locating here. The firm would employ 700 people. “They still are interested in Columbus County and we were told last week that if they can get their funding together, they are coming here. We’re talking about a $220 million investment that could be coming here,” Edwards says.

He says the CEO of that firm told him, “You’re situated halfway between New York City and Miami Beach” and said you just can’t get a better location for a manufacturing facility.

“And with the explosive growth that’s coming to Brunswick and Horry counties in the next 20 years ... we’re going to get some of the overflow. There’s no question. That’s why I feel very good about Columbus County and that’s why I feel our time has come,” Edwards said.

He hopes to increase the number of available buildings where potential new industries can locate.

“We lack building inventory, places a new industry or other business can move into without too much difficulty in this county,” he notes. “We’re working on that and, interestingly enough, Les High (vice chairman of the CJF board) has found an available 38,000 sq. ft. building that can be used for a manufacturing plant of some sort. And that will be a big deal.”

Edwards is excited that a feasibility study is going to be conducted due to efforts by Columbus County native N.C. Sen. Bill Rabon, who now represents Brunswick, Pender, Bladen and Hanover counties.

That study will explore building a rail spur to connect the R.J. Corman rail line and the CSX main line through Bladen County to provide rail access between Columbus County and the port in Wilmington.

Edwards feels good about the CJF as a whole. Their website (columbusjobsfoun- dation.org) is “fantastic,” Edwards says. “We’ve gotten a lot of hits on the web site, and that means a lot of site selection folks are looking at Columbus.” He adds that the CJF is much stronger financially than it was a year ago and that membership has over doubled in the same time period, from 59 to more than 120.

He says the future looks bright for the Columbus Jobs Foundation and, by extension, the future for economic development in Columbus County looks extremely bright.

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