Signs for Caldwell County economy point up, speakers say

Apr. 12, 2013 @ 08:15 AM

The local economy has seen slow but consistent growth in jobs, retail sales and housing sales the past couple of years, local business officials said Thursday morning as they sounded an optimistic note for the coming year.

All three who addressed the Caldwell Chamber of Commerce’s first “Business 4 Breakfast” meeting referred in various ways to the local economy having turned a corner but said that continuing the progress will take constant attention, and housing is a potential bottleneck.

The most optimistic report came from Deborah Murray, executive director of the county’s Economic Development Commission, who said she hopes to land at least one of three major businesses the EDC is now in discussions with. The three together represent a potential investment of “hundreds of millions of dollars,” she said.

She said that the signs of transformation in Caldwell’s economy are there, though transformation can be hard to recognize until it has been completed.

“We’re moving through a U turn, and we’ve already done the hardest part,” she said. “... The signs are right, and the trends are there.”

In 2012 there were 15 new companies or expansion projects announced that hold the potential for 682 jobs, Murray said, and during the first three months of 2013, companies working with the EDC made commitments to add 63 jobs in the next few years, led by the 42 that pharmaceutical company Exela Pharma Sciences has pledged to create over three years. Exela also has said it intends to buy the former headquarters of Broyhill Furniture Industries on U.S. 321 and spend $8 million to renovate it. The sales price of the building has not been announced, but real estate brokerage Cassidy Turley had listed it for $3 million.

Murray also pointed to a steady, consistent improvement in the unemployment rate as well as actual number of employed workers in year-to-year comparisons for virtually every month since February 2010, when Caldwell’s unemployment rate peaked at 17.1 percent. For February 2013, the rate was 11.6 percent. That things don’t feel that much better to many people is partly a symptom of how bad things had gotten, she said.

“I’ll make you a promise: You’re going to hear some pretty fantastic announcements even in the next few weeks,” she said.

One of the potential roadblocks to recruitment, however, is housing -- there currently are just 19 listings in Caldwell in the $120,000 to $175,000 range, where the average sales price currently falls, said Glenda Wilson of Realty Executives. And while young couples and retirees often prefer new construction because it is less likely to need major maintenance soon, there is almost nothing new being built in that price range, she said.

“If we don’t have the housing, that affects the industry” recruitment, she said, as well as the ability to lure retirees who are attracted to this region’s climate and relatively low cost of living.

But overall, the local housing industry has just finished its best year since 2006, the peak year for sales before the housing crash, Wilson said. Currently, there are 81 sales pending under contract in Caldwell, while last year at this time there were just nine.

On the retail-sales front, Ralph Prestwood, owner of Prestwood Associates, said that because Caldwell is not the retail hub that counties such as Catawba are, the sales slump did not hit here as severely as elsewhere. Figures on sales taxes indicate that the drop in retail sales -- locally, regionally and statewide -- ended after 2010, and since then there has been a steady increase.

Prestwood said that the contribution of the retail strip along U.S. 321 between Smith’s Crossroads and Greenhaven Avenue is underappreciated, but it brings in significant tax revenue. More needs to be done to diversity the offerings, he said, pointing to major chains such as Olive Garden, Chick-Fil-A and Biscuitville that have opened in Wilkesboro, which is a smaller market.

Other targets for recruitment should be a higher-end hotel and possibly a department store such as Kohl’s, which also has a store in Wilkesboro, he said.