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  • Allen Turner

Hemp processor, bio-gas, infrastructure projects on economic radar

Despite a recent plant closure and other mostly hurricane-related setbacks here, Columbus County Economic Developer Gary Lanier saw the silver lining around what could be perceived as a cloud by some, offering many positive comments Monday night when he updated Columbus County commissioners on economic activity in the county.

Economic development matters, including Lanier’s departmental update and three public hearings, dominated the meeting.

After hearings in which no members of the public chose to speak, commissioners unanimously approved economic development incentive packages for Black’s Tire Service and Carolina Botanicals, as well okaying the issuance of revenue refunding bonds for International Paper Company.

“Some people have said our recovery from Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Florence has been slow,” Lanier told commissioners, “but Columbus County is mostly farm people, and farm people don’t quit. That’s what we’re doing. We’re working to keep moving and we’re going to get back to where we want it to be and then move forward from there.”

Black’s Tire Service will receive $61,509 in county tax incentives in exchange for investing $3.1 million to double the size of its Whiteville warehouse, creating 26 new jobs.

Carolina Botanicals, a hemp processor that plans to acquire the former W.F. Cox Warehouse in Tabor City, will be awarded a $40,279 grant for investing $1.75 million and creating 15 new jobs. Lanier also said he is waiting to hear from the N.C. Department of Commerce about an additional grant Carolina Botanicals potentially might receive to help renovate the building.

Instead of being glum about the closing earlier this month of the Cornerstone Building Products/PlyGem plant in Fair Bluff, Lanier chose to look on the bright side and cited the construction of the Advanced Manufacturing Training Center at Southeastern Community College and the expected opening in about a year of a wildlife sanctuary in Fair Bluff.

“The expansion at SCC will affect the county for many, many years to come,” Lanier said, “and the expansion will allow us to do even more specialized industrial training for new manufacturing firms and implements the mechatronics program, which is what all potential industrial employers want. Their equipment is highly technical, and the programs that are already underway at SCC and that will be expanded even more will get the mechanical and electronics components working together.”

He also praised the workforce development program at SCC for having already successfully placed 42 of the 63 people who were put out of work then the PlyGem plant closed and revealed that some companies have expressed preliminary interest in locating to the Fair Bluff facility.

Lanier touted Shizzy’s Wildcat Rescue, a nonprofit animal sanctuary expected to open next year in Fair Bluff and attempted to reassure two commissioners who expressed concerns about safety when the big cats take up residence in the county. (See related story elsewhere in this issue.)

Both Lanier and Fair Bluff municipal officials have been enthusiastic about welcoming the cat refuge to the county and they hope that it will become a busy tourist destination which creates more than a dozen permanent jobs.

The economic developer was especially complimentary of Cerro Gordo’s Ricky Benton family, owners of Black’s Tire Service.

“They have demonstrated such a commitment to our county,” Lanier said. “From a logistical standpoint, if all they were looking at was the dollars and cents bottom line, it probably would have made more sense for them to build their expansion in South Carolina instead of Whiteville. But they made their decision based on what they think about this county and how they feel about our people.”

Lanier also ticked off several other bits of recent economic good news and efforts now underway in the county, including:

–GUESS, an international bio-gas conversion company, wants to locate a plant here to convert hog wastes to natural gas. A ribbon cutting in the Clarendon community will take place soon;

–The recent expansion of the horse complex at Boys and Girls Homes of North Carolina at Lake Waccamaw;

–A possible expansion of Whiteville Fabrics;

–Development of a job creation plan for distressed communities from one end of the county to another. Lanier said the plan, created with the N.C. Department of Commerce, is the first of its type in the state and that it’s being used as a model for similar programs statewide. “It’s kind of good to be a trendsetter,” he said.

–Business incubator grants for projects in Tabor City and Bolton.

–Continuation of work on a water line extension for both the International Logistics Park on the Columbus-Brunswick county line at the eastern end of the county and further extending the line six miles inside the county. That project will include two new wells. He cited grant applications already in progress for that line and for a water line extension to the new Helena Chemical site near Midway Road.

–In Natural gas expansion in the Tabor City; and

–Continued work and planning for revitalizing downtown Fair Bluff after the business district was destroyed by hurricane-related floods in 2016 and 2018.

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