By Richard Sullins |

Data from the 2020 Census shows that 51 of North Carolina’s 100 counties are declining in population. Lee County is not among that group.

State Demographer Mike Cline spoke to a group of about 250 business leaders from Lee and Harnett counties on Sept. 1 at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center, along with SAGA CEO Jimmy Randolph; Pfizer Director of People Experience Courtney Mapson, Adcock Real Estate Co-Owner Kelly Dubois, and Kirk Bradley, president and CEO of Lee-Moore Capital Company.

Cline said rural counties like Lee who are seeing growth have some unique advantages.

“They have access to abundant water resources, they treasure and have preserved green spaces, and they have easy access to the major urban areas of Raleigh, Charlotte, and Greensboro,” he said.

Projections made by the State Demographer’s Office show Lee County’s population will grow from its current 63,000 in 2022 to 90,000 in 2050, an increase of 27,000 people in just 28 years.

Cline said the greatest single impact on the state during the next 25 years will be the graying of the population. By 2028, one in every five North Carolinians will be over 65, meaning increased demands on the healthcare system.

But another critical impact of that circumstance is that there will be fewer workers available to fill available jobs because there has been little growth in the number of young people to take the place of those who are aging out of the system.

Looking at Lee County’s growth

The source of what’s driving the expansion of the local economy is somewhat in debate. Those who live in the Raleigh-Durham area tend to see Lee County’s growth as a spillover of what has taken place in their own communities over the past few decades.

Cline, who falls into this group, believes a given geographic area can only hold so much business and the population that supports it, and he spoke to the growth that surrounding regions (so-called “halo counties”) are experiencing, like Vance and Granville counties to the north of Raleigh and Wendell to its east.

There is some merit to that argument. Without question, much of the growth taking place in new housing developments is being fed by in-migration from Wake and Durham counties, but also from places as far away as New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and California, according to Dubois.

Although nearly 10,000 new housing units have been approved and are awaiting construction in Sanford, finding affordable homes has become more of an issue for many first-time buyers.

“Four years ago, the average house built in Lee or Harnett counties would go for about $90 per square foot,” Dubois said. “Now, I would struggle to find a house in either county for less than $150 a square foot.”

But there’s also a very strong argument to be made that the county’s recent economic development successes have been earned from within.

Jimmy Randolph, CEO of the Sanford Area Growth Alliance, described the years of hard work that went into acquiring industrial sites like Central Carolina Enterprise Park, getting them cleared and graded, making infrastructure like water and sewer available to them, and having speculative buildings constructed that were ready to be occupied.

“It’s what I call a 10-year overnight success,” he said. “We worked for years to get ready for things that are now happening quickly. We had many partners working together over a 10-year period to get those sites ready. When Pfizer announced in 2019 that it would be expanding its Sanford operations to include gene therapy, that paved the way for Astellas and those others that came after it. Preparation was absolutely critical. It’s what will prepare us for the next success and the one that will come after that.”

What brought Pfizer to Sanford? Mapson said the decision wasn’t a difficult one.

“The facility has been there for 35 years and generations from the same families have worked there now,” she said. “Expanding into gene therapy here wasn’t cheap. It was a $500 million investment. But it wasn’t difficult at all to justify it. We have proven time and time again that there is great talent here and that made it an easy decision.”

Kirk Bradley said forming SAGA in 2014 was a major step in developing the winning formula that is now the envy of the southeastern United States.

“We decided that we wanted to win. Alabama had been successful thru a similar process and that’s the approach we took with economic development,” he said. “It takes all those building blocks and we had to assemble all those pieces to work in concert. You have to get everyone on the boat to pull on their oar in the same direction and at the same time. And that’s not easy.”

What comes next?

When Gov. Roy Cooper announced the location of Vietnamese carmaker VinFast’s electric vehicle and battery production facilities just over the Deep River in Chatham County on March 29, Sanford’s high performing economic engine shifted into overdrive.

The company’s first production facility outside of Vietnam represents a $6.5 billion investment in the region and is the largest economic development project in North Carolina history. The complex will be located on a 1,765-acre tract near Moncure the company purchased last month for just under $44 million and is expected to be home to 7,500 jobs when it opens in July of 2024.

Those workers will be trained at the Sanford campus of Central Carolina Community College in a facility that is expected to be completed by the end of summer in 2023. Many of them will find housing and do their shopping here, creating a boon in the county’s tax base.

Bradley said acquiring land and putting up shell buildings is really the easy part of the process.

“The bigger challenge is to have our people ready, like having smoother transitions for those who are moving back to civilian life, or those who are navigating pathways between high school and college and the workplace. I think that’s what we have to do if we want to stay in the winning column,” he said.

Beyond VinFast, companies that will support their operations will spring up around the plant, including at the new 600-acre industrial park site just approved by the city adjacent to the Raleigh Executive Jetport.

Comparisons are increasingly being made to the possibility of a similar effect to the one that BMW had on the Greenville-Spartanburg area of South Carolina as other companies opened up operations quickly to support. In fact, less than a month after VinFast’s announcement, FedEx said it would build a 330,000-square foot distribution center just a mile down the road from the automaker’s plant.

Dubois thinks that to stay ahead of the competition, cities like Sanford have to be paying attention to the small things.

“We have wonderful businesses downtown. If we want to keep all the people who will come here to live, we need to think about having businesses open at hours that cater to them,” she said. “Having restaurants and shops and amenities is a huge part of building the sort of infrastructure that will support these folks and keep them here.”

Randolph believes that coming improvements in transportation will keep Sanford and Lee County at the head of the pack.

“Sanford is in the middle of an ‘interstate desert’ right now. There just aren’t any within 20 or so miles from us and site consultants are looking for ways to eliminate communities from consideration because there are so many of them out there,” he said. “Not having access to an interstate is one of them. Having that I-685 designation along what is now 421 from the Triad to Dunn at I-95 will be a huge part of making us even more attractive to prospective industries.”

Randolph believes this connectivity could happen sooner than usual thanks to a federal infrastructure bill passed last fall by Congress.

And there’s more.

Bradley says there will be improvements along U.S. 1 near the VinFast property between Pea Ridge Road at Exit 81 and Christian Chapel Church Road at Exit 84. He doesn’t believe the area will ever be dense enough to justify light rail service but does think an expansion of the GoTriangle regional bus service for routes between Sanford and the Triangle might be possible.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Transportation announced the award of a $3.4 million grant to complete studies necessary for the construction of a train station in Sanford that would offer daily commuter service to Raleigh and as far north as Norlina. Sanford is one of seven cities and towns along the line to which service might be expanded if the project comes to fruition.

Randolph says Sanford’s success has been hard-earned but staying ahead of the game remains a challenge.

“We’ve managed to constantly evolve and meet the changing needs of all our citizens here to grow the wealth and continue to be a leader in the region,” he said. “We are meeting the needs of our workers but also the needs of the industries located here. We have unique opportunities here, too. We just have to keep our faces to the grindstone to maintain them.”