Growing Jobs and Tax Base

Catawba County, North Carolina 

Mick Berry, ICMA-CM, County Manager 

Historically, the economy of Catawba County, North Carolina (population 159,494), has been based on manufacturing. During the economic recession of the 2000s, the community suffered significant job loss and high unemployment, topping out at 14 percent in 2010. Automation and the off-shoring of furniture and textiles drove these losses. From about 2000 to 2016, the metropolitan statistical area suffered a staggering 20.4 percent decline in jobs and significant loss in working-age population. These troubling trends underscored the need for bold action to reverse the curve, and local leaders responded by developing an appropriate adaptive response.

In 2014, in collaboration with the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) of Catawba County, the county and the city of Hickory (its largest municipality) partnered to develop a vision for Trivium Corporate Center, a Class A modern business park designed to attract higher technology business, research and development facilities, and clean manufacturing. The center was designed to spur investment in the community and to provide jobs for residents. The city and county entered into an agreement sharing equally in governance, management, and funding.  The first step in transforming this vision into reality was working with multiple landowners to negotiate long-term acquisition options for 270 acres of real estate located close to a major interstate and less than an hour from Charlotte Douglas International Airport. (This was no small feat!)

A staff team worked through development of a site plan, requisite annexation and rezoning, and identification of public infrastructure needs as well as quality of life amenities. Land acquisition costs totaled $6.9 million, and infrastructure costs at full build-out were estimated to be roughly $13 million, spread over a 20-year development timeframe. Outside funding and revenue from Trivium’s sale of land to final park tenants helped write down the out-of-pocket costs for both local governments. The accelerated pace and success of Trivium Corporate Center’s development has far exceeded initial expectations. In just six years, through January 2020, the partners announced a total of $119 million in guaranteed minimum private investment and 398 jobs (all with wages exceeding the Catawba County average), thanks to location commitments by three internationally known companies: Corning, Inc.; ITM Medical Isotopes, Inc.; and Cataler North America Corp., an affiliate of Toyota Motor Corporation.

The Trivium Corporate Center initiative highlights the best attributes of true local government innovation: strategic thinking, adaptive response, collaboration, and professional management in execution. The first lesson learned was the need for courage. The processes of land acquisition, rezoning, and annexation tested the mettle of the county and city governing bodies in the face of detractors. Eventually neighbors’ concerns were addressed, converting most project detractors to supporters.

The second lesson was the importance of collaboration, which is deeply rooted in Catawba County’s community culture. Even with this values-based commitment, collaboration required significant behind-the-scenes “heavy lifting” by staff to facilitate consensus of the two elected bodies on a host of details related to the undertaking. The final lesson was the importance of sound project management and a consistent and relentless focus on execution. The many moving parts and important details associated with bringing the vision of Trivium to reality underscored the importance of a disciplined and regimented project management framework to ensure the work got done. The success of Trivium Corporate Center in growing jobs and tax base would not be what it is without the collaborative and strategic partnership among the Hickory, Catawba County, and the EDC.