hat does having the No. 1 business climate in America do for your state? In North Carolina, it appears to catapult activity to new levels. From innovative aerospace, life sciences, transportation technology and advanced manufacturing plants moving in, it’s clear the state has captured the attention of domestic and international companies looking to get things done.
North Carolina has held Site Selection’s No. 1 rank for two years in a row (tying with Georgia in 2020) as the state continues to draw notice from corporate investors. The state secured 185 projects, 24,224 jobs and about $10 billion in capital investment in 2021 alone.
Tobacco, textiles and furniture manufacturing led the state’s economy for decades. From R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. to Kontoor Brands and Century Furniture, North Carolina continues to house of some of the nation’s favorite brands. As companies move on, their footprints remain as you pass through town. New businesses reimagine old textile mills into chic offices, restaurants or apartments, preserving the region’s original foundation but with a modern twist. Thus, while these core industries have declined over the years, their legacy remains.
Now the state is establishing a new legacy, having the nation’s lowest corporate income tax rate at 2.5%. By 2030, it will fall to 0% as a part of Governor Roy Cooper’s Current Operations Appropriations Act signed in 2021.
“You start ticking off that North Carolina has incredible colleges and universities throughout the state, incredible workforce, incredible transportation infrastructure, and businesses see all those advantages and think they’re going to have to pay an awful lot for that,” says Greensboro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Brent Christensen. “And we say, ‘Oh by the way, we have the lowest corporate income tax of any state in the United States.’ ”
The Greensboro Grasshoppers play at First National Bank Field in the heart of the city.
Courtesy of the Greensboro Chamber
Regional collaboration and targeted development paired with a skilled workforce, favorable market access and affordable quality of life continue to attract billions in investment to every part of the state. But some areas are better known than others. While Charlotte and the Research Triangle are well established brands, the Carolina Core recently formed to bring business development, manufacturing and a reimagined image to the central part of the state.
Team Sport as Game Changer
The more than 120-mile crescent-shaped Carolina Core region encompasses the triad of Winston-Salem, High Point and Greensboro and then stretches all the way down to Fayetteville. The Piedmont Triad Partnership unveiled the concept of the Carolina Core in 2018 to promote the collective assets counties in the region hold. The Carolina Core has a talent pool of over 2 million people, with access to over 30 colleges and universities with 250,000 students, robust transportation infrastructure, four international airports, industrial research parks and four megasites.
“Folks have started looking at economic development as a team sport rather than individual,” says Mike Fox, president of Piedmont Triad Partnership. “That’s a game changer.”
When it comes to site selection, corporations pay no mind to district borders. They want sites ready to build on by the time the ink dries after signing a deal.
The Greensboro-Randolph megasite is a prime example of collaboration from both county and city officials bringing their assets together to land a transformative project: Toyota’s $1.29 billion, 1,750-job EV battery plant —its first— which broke ground in June 2022. “The timeline for decision-making for companies is continuing to accelerate and if your site is not ready, you’re missing the bit,” says Kevin Franklin, president of Randolph County Economic Development Corporation. Duke Energy, Randolph and Guilford counties, the city of Greensboro and the North Carolina Railroad Company partnered on the megasite over a number of years. The site features 1,825 acres of certified land, strategically located by six Interstates and three international airports, with onsite rail and proximity to three East Coast seaports.
The Carolina Core extends from the Piedmont Triad region all the way to the military-friendly region of Fayetteville.
Courtesy of The Carolina Core.
Transportation Innovation by Land and by Air
Recruitment efforts from state, regional and local organizations also have led to a $4 billion investment at the over 2,150-acre Triangle Innovation Point megasite in Chatham County near the Research Triangle. Vietnamese auto manufacturer Vinfast selected the state for its first North American EV assembly and battery manufacturing plant, which will create 7,500 jobs. The investment marks the largest economic development deal in state history. The company began site preparation in July 2022 for the project’s first phase, as Vinfast invests $2 billion in building production lines for electric cars and bus production and assembly on the 1,977-acre site. “North Carolina’s strong commitments in building a clean energy economy, fighting climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in transportation make it an ideal location for VinFast to develop its premium, smart and environmentally friendly EVs,” said Le Thi Thu Thuy, Vingroup vice chair and VinFast global CEO, in a press release.
North Carolina is no stranger to innovative aviation. The Wright Brothers made history in the state in 1903, inventing and flying the first successful airplane at Kitty Hawk. The Piedmont International Airport (PTI), one of four international airports in the state, caters to the Triad region of Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem. With more than 1,000 acres of land ready for development and an 800-acre tract available in its entirety or in parcels with a taxiway bridge that connects to PTI, the site is prepared for business. The airport is the third busiest in the state and already has attracted FedEx Express Mid-Atlantic Air Hub, Honda Aircraft Company, Cessna and HAECO Americas.
In January 2022, aviation history was made again. Boom Supersonic selected PTI’s site for its first full-scale manufacturing facility, expected to bring 2,400 jobs by 2032. The company will manufacture the Overture passenger jet, which will be net-zero carbon and fly on 100% sustainable aviation fuel at twice the speed of today’s fastest passenger jet. Chris Taylor, vice president of manufacturing at Boom Supersonic, told Site Selection what ingredients made North Carolina emerge as the clear choice in a nationwide search:
In August, Boom welcomed an order for 20 aircraft from American Airlines, with an option for 40 more. It follows orders from Japan Airlines and United Airlines.
As industries move from textile, furniture and tobacco to aerospace, life sciences, advanced manufacturing, automotive and logistics, a highly skilled workforce is vital. North Carolina’s workforce population was more than 5 million as of June 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In January 2022, Site Selection ranked North Carolina No. 2 for regional workforce development based on available skilled workforce that satisfy requirements employers are seeking within their sector. The state has the largest manufacturing workforce in the Southeast, at more than 475,000 employees. It also has third largest active-duty military population at 19,000. The diverse veteran and student talent pipeline continues to draw domestic and international companies.
North Carolina ranks No. 7 in the nation in terms of education according to U.S. News and World Report in 2022. With 53 colleges and universities and 58 community college campuses, accessibility to high-quality education lays a foundation for students to earn degrees or enter training programs that place them in high-paying roles.
Companies like Boom Supersonic find value in collaborating with institutions to offer internships to pair with ongoing education. As the company prepares for its Overture factory at PTI, it plans to offer 200 internships to students through 2032.
“One of North Carolina’s many strengths is the quality of its higher education and technical training schools. At Boom, we’re deeply committed to helping develop the next generation of aerospace talent,” says Boom Supersonic’s Chris Taylor. “That’s why any full-time, enrolled student currently attending a university, community college, or technical school in North Carolina is eligible for our program.”
In August 2022, The U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration (EDA) awarded $23.7 million to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro as part of the Good Jobs Challenge grant program, which gave $500 million to 32 workforce training projects. In North Carolina’s case, it will help establish STEPs4GROWTH, a clean energy workforce training program.
STEPs4GROWTH will offer training opportunities starting at high school level through college to earn certificates and work-based learning skills that can lead to a bachelor’s degree. Halifax Community College, Martin County Community College, Guliford Community College, UNC Charlotte and Olympic High School in Charlotte will create regional training centers that focus on energy efficiency, renewable energy, clean vehicles and grid and storage.
All Grown Up
Just as most of North Carolina ranks below the national average in cost of living, many places in the state rank high in personal satisfaction. The Carolina Core is no exception.
As I drove through Greensboro, it was hard to picture that it existed as a railroad town to transport furniture, tobacco and textile goods. The track still runs through the middle of downtown, carrying remnants of the city’s history. But while the historical integrity of the buildings remains, what were once factories are now rustic-feeling modern apartments, hotels and offices overlooking the minor-league Greensboro Grasshoppers’ ballpark, which doubles as an outdoor venue for various events.
The new downtown eight-mile Greenway gives residents or visitors the option to ditch an Uber and walk, run or bike to a new local restaurant, brewery, bar or grocery store nestled along the way. Barren public space was revamped to create Lebauer Park, with a playground and splash pad for the kids and a dog park, where you can grab a bite to eat from Parkside Pull-up or a beer from Lawn Service by Little Brother Brewing. The latest addition to the area is the $93 million Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, a 3,000-seat venue that opened in September 2021.
Action Greensboro works to create programs focused on workforce development and retaining talent in Greensboro. One recent program focus has been the Boomerang Campaign, reaching out to past residents to invite them back to live and work in the reimagined city. “Our tagline is, ‘You grew up, so did Greensboro,’ ” says Brent Christensen.
The City of High Point, known as the home furnishings capital of the world, hosts the world’s largest home furnishings trade show twice a year. But there wasn’t much to do or see downtown.
This led to the creation of the downtown Catalyst Project to increase the commercial tax base and create gathering space to draw visitors in year-round. In May 2019, the city opened its $36.1 million multi-use stadium downtown, now home to the High Point Rockers baseball team.
Like Greensboro, High Point’s historical roots are still intact as you walk through downtown. The Stock + Grain Assembly Food Hall features nine independently owned restaurants and two bars with a scenic view of the stadium to enjoy whether it’s a weekday or weekend. If there’s work to be done, it’s a short walk over to Congdon Yards. Located in the revitalized Adams-Millis hosiery mill, the multi-story building offers an innovative space for collaborative or independent work to get done.
“There’s a certain authenticity in your mom-and-pop places that to me shows what the health of a local business means,” says High Point Mayor Jay Wagner on investing in entrepreneurial businesses. “It’s really about creating an experience for people.”
A robust pipeline of projects means more people than ever are experiencing the reimaged places across the center of the Tarheel State.
A former R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company plant now houses scientists and medical personnel engineering the future of regenerative medicine.
Winston-Salem’s Innovation Quarter, located in a once thriving R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company manufacturing plant, is now home to one of the fastest growing innovation districts in the U.S. for cutting-edge biotechnology research. The Innovation Quarter offers lab space and equipment for startups or existing companies to come to North Carolina to develop and test innovative prototypes.
“We are well-established historic manufacturing communities that are doing futuristic things,” says Mark Owens, president and CEO of Greater Winston-Salem, Inc. “It’s fascinating, the reimagining of the economy.”
Physicians and scientists at Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM), a part of Wake Forest University School of Medicine, pioneered the future of regenerative medicine by being the first to successfully create laboratory-grown organs implanted into humans. Flat structures, tubular tissues, hollow organs and solid organs along with 15 various applications of cell and tissue therapy technologies have been created by WFIRM’s team. The institute has drawn global attention through government, academic and industry partnerships involving over 400 entities and institutions.
INEOS Automotive began selling the Grenadier 4X4 in mid-2022.
Photo courtesy of INEOS Automotive
INEOS Automotive, based in the UK, picked Wake County — Raleigh, specifically — as the site of its North American headquarters in September 2021. The company is a subsidiary of INEOS Group, a leading producer of petrochemicals, specialty chemicals and oil products with manufacturing facilities in 29 countries. It makes the Grenadier, a 4X4 SUV powered by BMW six-cylinder engines.
How is it different from SUVs already on the market? INEOS Automotive explains: “Combining rugged British spirit and design with German engineering rigor, the Grenadier will be a truly uncompromising 4x4 built from the ground up. Engineered to overcome all conditions, it will provide best-in-class off-road capability, durability, and reliability to those who depend on a vehicle as a working tool, wherever they are in the world.”
Production of the Grenadier began in mid-2022 at a former Daimler plant in Hambach, France.
Heading up the Raleigh operation is Greg Clark, EVP Americas. “We’re delighted to be here in Raleigh,” he said on a recent tour showcasing the vehicle. “This is our home now and we’ve chosen it very specifically.” Among the area’s attributes he cited are metro size and infrastructure, industry diversity, educational resources and nearby off-roading opportunities. “I wanted this organization to be very close to the customer base. When we’re bringing a vehicle like the Grenadier — super capable, very rugged, very utilitarian, off-road as a market — there was no better place for us to be than Raleigh.”
Alexis Elmore joined Conway Data in 2022 as associate editor for Site Selection. A 2021 graduate of the University of Georgia, she studied journalism and communications before moving back to Atlanta to pursue her career. As an editor for Site Selection and contributor to Conway's Custom Content guides, she writes about economic development efforts and corporate growth happening around the globe.