Column: Caldwell County officials get pat on back

Aug. 03, 2014 @ 01:17 AM

Many eyes were on Sawmills last Thursday at the ribbon-cutting for Carolina Locust Inc., a new sawmill with ambitious plans for sustainable development and alternative energy.

And not just the eyes of local government and business officials, who turned out in good numbers.

Also in attendance were Mike Finley, a field representative for U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Jonathan Lawrie, executive director of the western office of the N.C. Biotechnology Center. Finley was there to deliver brief remarks on behalf of Burr, saying with a straight face that Burr was stuck in Washington while Congress was trying to get something accomplished before taking August off. (Friday morning's headline from Politico: "Congress sputters on deadline day.")

But Lawrie was there, in his words, as part of a months-long effort (which started when someone showed him a News-Topic article on it) to figure out how Caldwell County has managed to get its accumulation of biotechnology companies, to which we have just added Carolina Locust. We have pharmaceutical companies Greer Labs and Exela Pharma Sciences, a manufacturing and research facility for medical device company Adhezion Biomedical, and renewable-energy company Foothills Bio-Energies.

Though the total employment in those businesses currently is only about 400 (Greer and Exela are growing so quickly that I may be off quite a bit), Lawrie said there are many communities desperately trying to figure out how to find a bridge from the 20th-century economy of manufacturing to what is perceived as a 21st-century economic field with a long future ahead of it, biotechnology and life sciences.

Lawrie may not have his answer yet, but amid the talk Thursday about the varied plans of Carolina Locust and its affiliated ventures, there were a lot of encouraging words for local economic development and government officials and how they approach newcomers to the county.

Carolina Locust's Stubby Warmbold said he signed the agreement to begin operations in Sawmills on July 1. At the time, the site didn’t even have access to electrical power. But on July 30, the first wood was sawed.

With a look of amazement, Warmbold compared that to the urban sawmill he opened in Newark, N.J., several years ago, where it took a year and a half just to get an electric line extended 50 feet to his sawmill site.

Warmbold’s son, Will, said before the ribbon-cutting ceremony began that opening in Newark was like being in battle against the city. Almost everything seemed to need permits or fees or inspections, and nothing went quickly. By contrast, here in Caldwell County if they found they needed a welder or an electrician, not knowing anyone else they simply called the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission, and boom, contractor located, problem solved.

Finley smiled at the story and told him, “Tell your friends in New Jersey.”

The Warmbolds' story echoed comments that Phanesh Koneru, president and CEO of Exela, made in February while accepting the Industry of the Year award at the annual Caldwell Economic Development Celebration.

“Ever since we came to Caldwell County in 2008, we have received nothing but excellent cooperation and help when we needed it,” he said.

The Warmbolds and Koneru sound much too busy to be sent on missionary economic recruitment trips to New Jersey or anywhere else, but maybe their testimonials, and others', can be recorded, compiled and put online, the better to reach more eyes.