Out of 56 opportunities for projects involving new jobs and investments that arose in fiscal 2018-19, the Wilkes Economic Development Corp. is still working with 11 on a regular basis as company officials go through the decision-making process.

Wilkes EDC President LeeAnn Nixon shared this and more in a report on her first year in the county during the July 2 Wilkes County commissioners meeting.

Nixon started as EDC director in mid-August 2018, so the numbers she shared weren’t quite for a full year.

She said five of the 11 opportunities are companies already in Wilkes and helping them find what they need is a high priority “because we want to help keep them here and keep them growing here.”

She provided information showing that plans of the 11 companies involve the potential addition of 98 jobs and investment of $18 million. They also involve usage of a total of 51,000 square feet of floor space and 11 acres.

Nixon said the EDC “missed” 21 of the 56 opportunities, mostly because it couldn’t meet site or building requirements of those 21 companies. Most of the 21 were manufacturing operations and 13 wanted buildings with more than 100,000 square feet of floor space ready to be occupied.

She said the 21 at least helped the EDC see what companies are seeking.

If Wilkes had the buildings the 21 companies wanted, asked c, what percentage of them likely would have made their new investments here?

Nixon said it’s hard to say because of the many factors involved.

“We would at least have had an opportunity to entertain them in our community with a visit. Once you get them here on the ground, hopefully they fall in love with our people, our community, our education, our workforces and all the resources we have,” she said.

“If you don’t have the building or the site, you never get the first chance to even play the game.”

Settle added, “What about pad-ready sites,” referring to sites graded and ready for construction.

She responded, “In most cases they are looking for an existing building because they’re usually waiting until late in the game and want to be in production in six months from when they make their decision.” If they look everywhere and can’t find the building, they usually come back and say, “how about a site.”

Nixon said that according to “Business North Carolina” magazine, 69% of the projects the Economic Development Partnership of N.C. (EDPNC) worked on in 2018 were in rural or distressed counties.

That’s encouraging and indicates that if Wilkes had had the buildings or pad-ready sites companies want, it could have been in that 69%, she said.

Settle said that in the three to four years he was on the EDC board, an EDC real estate committee was looking at potential sites but never brought anything to the full board to act on. “So, I know it’s about time to do it.”

Nixon responded, “We want to do it. We’d have loved to have pulled the trigger before now, but it’s important that we choose the right place at the right price…. They’re all asking to be as close as they can to U.S. 421 and be near other industries” and not residential areas.

She said the lack of flat land and the many streams in Wilkes increase development costs.

Nixon said the EDC committee Settle referenced is still at work “and I hope we’re getting close.”

She said most manufacturers want buildings with ceiling heights of 25 to 30 feet. “That’s hard because our older buildings don’t have that. They’re much lower.” Relatively small square footage buildings with a ceiling height around 20 feet is typically the best the Wilkes EDC can do, said Nixon.

She said 24 of the 56 opportunities resulted from referrals by the EDPNC. Another 14 were companies that contacted the EDC, 11 were referred to the EDC by EDC board members or other “partners” and seven originated with real estate brokers.

She said her goal was to visit 60 employers in Wilkes in fiscal 2018-19 and she and EDC Vice President Robin Hamby visited 62. They made 40 follow-up visits.

Nixon said she and/or Hamby attended 217 “partner” meetings, which include local government meetings. They were involved in 78 instances of “product development” and in 192 instances provided “solutions,” which includes various requests for information and other assistance.

Commissioner Gary Blevins asked Nixon what about the status of the proposed new N.C. National Guard training facility on a portion of the Town of North Wilkesboro’s industrial park property on River Road-Liberty Grove Church Road, funded in a state bond referendum approved in 2016.

Nixon said a required 18-month engineering study on the property began in March.

She said an EDC action plan, resulting from a process that included public feedback, should be ready by late August.

Keith Elmore, chairman of the commissioners, said he sees “help wanted” signs all over Wilkes. Nixon said that in most cases, employers are willing to provide training to fill available jobs.

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