Surry County suffered no major layoffs or industry closures during 2015, according to an annual update given Monday to the Elkin Board of Commissioners.
Todd Tucker, president of the Surry County Economic Development Partnership, reported there was one minor layoff by Mount Airy company, Ottenweller, with 30 people losing their jobs, but he noted the company is trying to hire some of those positions back.
County-wide, the partnership, which acts as a liaison, recruiter and resource for potential and existing businesses and industries throughout Surry County, had 55 inquiries from companies during 2015, but was only able to respond to 24 of those due to the limitations on existing buildings available to meet the needs of the businesses seeking to expand or relocate. “Ninety percent of those wanted an existing building, and 54 percent wanted a building over 100,000 square feet,” Tucker said.
“A lot of people call us when they are looking to move and they give us a list of requirements. Usually they lead with real estate,” he said. “Over 95 percent lead with real estate.
“Every building has a use, but we have to find the proper use,” Tucker said of the buildings available for prospective industries in Surry County. “When they are built in the ’50s, ’60s, even ’30s, you look at PGW versus those older buildings. The new structures are taller, bigger, brighter, cleaner, faster.”
He compared economic development’s real estate challenges to purchasing a used car. If someone is shopping and the choice is between an older Pinto or a newer Honda Accord, “they’re going to pick the Accord,” Tucker said.
This real estate issue is a challenge not just in Surry County, but statewide as well.
“Seventy-seven percent of inquiries want an existing building,” he said. “Fifty-seven percent of industries want 100,000 square feet or more.”
County economic development leaders are in discussions about how to overcome that challenge, Tucker reported. “It is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Another issue that comes up when talking about economic development is workforce. “In today’s world, training and technical skills are key,” he said. “We’ve moved from manual labor. They want 20 to 25 good applicants to one job. Having a highly trained and highly skilled workforce is important.
“Without good labor ready to work or a trained labor force, it’s hard to promote that,” he said. “We’re two to three generations off the farm, so they’re not used to what real labor and work are.”
Of the 24 inquiries the partnership, 10 of those turned into client visits, he said.
Five project announcements were made during the year as well, with some of those being existing companies who moved or expanded — SouthData, Johnson Granite, Delaware Quarries, A+ Carports and Steel Building Structures.
Looking to future development, Tucker said what the county wants is new small to mid-sized firms moving in and expansions. “We want 10 to 15 of those instead of one big company, because we see what happens when big business leaves.”
He also said, “It is important for Surry County businesses to do business with Surry County businesses. We do a lot of connections and referrals to people within Surry County.”
Last year, 129 connections were made through the partnership.
Other projects of the partnership include online marketing of the county and its available real estates, with social media playing a role in that as well. Also, it hosted three socials for its investors, with more planned for this year.
Another event hosted by the partnership is BizFest, which will be held April 7 at The Liberty in downtown Elkin this year. It is an opportunity for business-to-business networking.
Staff took three trips to the new Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina in Raleigh, attended two economic development events out of state to market the area where staff is able to see 30 people in one day rather than just two or three, hosted Youth Leadership Surry for juniors from each of the county’s high schools, and were sponsors of the First LEGO League robotics competition.
The partnership coordinates with students from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s Bryan School of Business to place student interns in six to eight small businesses, typically tourism or hospitality related, to assist them with projects such as website development, business analysis and more, Tucker said.
Next semester that program, which has helped 30 companies through 60 projects during the last five years, will be in Elkin. “It gives free help to businesses and the students get real-world experience,” he said.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.