The last 14 undeveloped acres of the American Drew furniture factory site next to downtown North Wilkesboro will be used in two new initiatives in Wilkes County, one for technology jobs and the other for developing an outdoor economy.
NC Tech Paths Inc. bought 1 ½ of the 14 acres as the site of a 30,000- to 40,000-square-foot building with “modern workspace for 200 to 300 technology employees of high-growth companies over the next five years,” said Lee Herring of North Wilkesboro.
Herring is president of the Leonard G. Herring Family Foundation, which established and provided over $2 million for NC Tech Paths.
The new NC Tech Paths facility, to be between Independence Avenue and the Central Business District Loop, will be called a “Regional Tech Outpost” (RTO). NC Tech Paths is trying to help local young people earn a living wage in Wilkes with high tech jobs.
The RTO would also house a place for children and adults to experience collaboration, learning and sharing in science, technology, education and math (STEM), called a “makerspace.”
“Our long-term goal is for Wilkes to have a regional STEM Center that serves all of western North Carolina so children and families no longer have to drive to Durham, Greensboro or Charlotte” for that, said Craig DeLucia, president of NC Tech Paths and CEO of the Herring Foundation. “The makerspace will be our first step in providing hands-on STEM experiences to our neighbors.”
The Herring Foundation bought the other 12 ½ acres, including about four acres between Independence Avenue and the CBD Loop to be sold to private developers as sites for apartments and possibly a hotel. “Our community needs more housing, as its absence is the primary barrier for our economic growth,” said Herring.
Remaining acreage the Herring Foundation bought is between Independence Avenue and the Rose Glen Manor assisted living facility on the north and northwest and the Reddies River on the southwest. It includes about five acres in a floodway or floodplain that Herring said will be given to Wilkes County government for establishing a park along the Reddies.
Wilkes County Manager John Yates said the county commissioners agreed by consensus in a closed session at their May 2 meeting to apply for a $950,000 Rural Transformation Grant (RTG) from the state for developing the park. Yates said they also agreed to provide the local match of $250,000 required if the grant is approved.
This five-acre park is in addition to a park on the Reddies with a beach included in plans for developing a “river district” in the Wilkesboros. A local Outdoor Economy Workgroup unveiled the river district concept as part of comprehensive plans for developing an outdoor economy in mid-April.
In their April 25 meeting, the North Wilkesboro commissioners agreed to apply for up to $1 million in RTG funds and provide up to $500,000 as a local match. This money would pay for streetscape work, roads, landscaping, signage, bike racks and similar work on the 14 acres called for in the river district plans.
Applications for the two state grants and related design work were prepared by Destination by Design, the Boone-based company hired by the Outdoor Economy Workgroup to prepare written plans for developing an outdoor economy and encourage active living in Wilkes.
The Outdoor Economy Workgroup includes representatives of the Health Foundation, Wilkes Economic Development Corp., Wilkesboro Tourism Development Authority, Wilkes Health Department, Yadkin River Greenway Council and the governments of Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro and Wilkes County.
“Childcare and a greater focus on individual health and wellness and other amenities to support the good-paying jobs generated through NC Tech Paths” will be explored as uses for the property, said Herring.
He said foundation will re-sell remaining acreage west of Independence Avenue to developers as part of the river district plans, with any profits going to NC Tech Paths to fund construction of the RTO.
DeLucia said that based on demand for workspace from NC Tech Paths employer-partners and interest in co-working space among entrepreneurs and teleworkers, NC Tech Paths will still need the Wilkes Journal-Patriot building on Main Street, North Wilkesboro. NC Tech Paths bought the buiding in early spring.
“This is a rare and wonderful opportunity for the Town of North Wilkesboro, and everyone in the Wilkes County area,” said North Wilkesboro Mayor Marc Hauser. “The timing couldn’t be better with the grant money available, NC Tech Paths’ needs for office and housing and the Herring Family Foundation’s generosity. This is a very exciting time with great possibilities.”
Heather Murphy, executive director of the Health Foundation, said goals of NC Tech Paths “beautifully dovetail with what we have put on paper as a concept” for developing an outdoor economy, including a STEM center and multi-family housing as part of the river district. Murphy added that it demonstrates what can be accomplished when people work together.
Herring agreed that the two initiatives align well. “When the Outdoor Economy Workgroup announced their vision to the public, we saw an opportunity to be a catalyst for the overall river district.” They already had an option to purchase the 14 acres, part of what’s known as the Block 46 property, from CBD Main Street LLC.
DeLucia said, “We’re at the outset of a rural revival in Wilkes County. Companies are looking to relocate here because of our beautiful surroundings and quality of life.”
He continued, “Employers are hiring technology talent to live in our community because of our best-in-state education programs and broadband internet. And more of our young people are seeing a path to living here and raising a family here, based on the opportunities that are being created. We’re even being approached by students at Appalachian State University who grew up in other neighboring counties but want to live in Wilkes after graduation.”
Herring said now is the time to invest in Wilkes. “We see the reversal of so many economic trends — from the globalization of manufacturing to the uneven distribution of technology jobs in urban areas.”
He added, “Today, talent is leaving the cities and moving to the places with the best quality of life and seeking out employers that are willing to let their teams work from anywhere. That includes Wilkes County — and it’s underway. Investments that we make today will last a generation or more.”