Economic developers will tell you that you can’t sell from an empty wagon, you have to have a product to sell. Two county economic development corporations have used the same process to continuously have a product available to market. Both of these counties used initial funding from the Golden LEAF Foundation to get the process started.
In 2021, the Golden LEAF Board of Directors awarded Wilkes Economic Development Corporation (EDC)
$1.5 million through the Community-Based Grants Initiative
to construct a multi-tenant building space. Wilkes EDC needed a building to help meet the needs of companies looking to locate or expand in the county.
“The Wilkes Commercial Business Center
has given us the opportunity to market Wilkes County to business and industry locally, across the state, nationally, and internationally,” said LeeAnn Nixon, President of Wilkes County EDC. “Before this building, we didn’t have any product to market. We are now having conversations with national and international companies that we could not have before.”
Wilkes Commercial Business Center is a 31,703-square-foot facility with two suites, including suite A which is 10,383 square feet and suite B which is 21,164 square feet.
At an April 25th celebration, Wilkes EDC announced that JavaMaster, a manufacturer of coffee bean roasters and a producer of a uniform coffee roast, will occupy suite A and create 13 full time jobs. The manufacturer will use the space at the Wilkes Commercial Business Center to bring coffee beans from around the world to blend, roast, package, and distribute.
Nixon said that JavaMaster has contracts with and plans to expand its relationship with Lowes Foods and other distributors in the Carolinas.
The new tenant and jobs are a big boon for the community, and fortunately with the structure of the Wilkes Commercial Business Center, there is even more opportunity for economic growth.
“We have additional space available with the 21,164-square-foot suite B currently still available,” said Nixon. “This suite offers both office and warehouse space and is move-in ready. The space is perfect for light industrial manufacturing.”
Nixon said she was inspired to build a multi-tenant building for lease by a similar structure she heard about at a North Carolina Economic Development Association (NCEDA) meeting.
Chuck Heustess, Executive Director of Bladen County’s economic development nonprofit, Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial, Inc., explained at the NCEDA meeting during a breakout session a structure that helps to consistently have products to market. The structure includes owning a building that is then leased or sold at fair market value. Then, the proceeds from the lease or sale are used to build another building that will be leased or sold at fair market value. This process is repeated to always have a building or be working towards funding for another building.
In 2010, the Golden LEAF Board supported this model by awarding $239,160 to Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial, Inc.
to help upfit a 20,000-square-foot building in Bladenboro to make a finished incubator space. At the time, potential clients who visited the building could not finance the upfit or did not have the flexibility to wait for an upfit.
Nixon said she heard Heustess speak directly after she attended a Community-Based Grants Initiative meeting. She knew she had to capitalize on the opportunity.
Nixon shared that two factors made the project possible: collaborative funding and partnerships.
“The Wilkes County leadership and commissioners became interested in the project because Golden LEAF could provide up to $1.5 million through the Community-Based Grants Initiative to help fund the project,” said Nixon. “Without Golden LEAF providing first money in, it would have been very hard to get the Wilkes County Commissioners on board with the idea. Golden LEAF was instrumental for our local government to provide the matching funding necessary to complete the building.”
Huestess then offered to provide the Wilkes County leadership with information about how Bladen’s Bloomin’ was able to make the building leasing or sale profitable for Bladen County’s economic growth.
“I was able to set up a conference call with Chuck and our county commissioners and county leadership,” said Nixon. “The meeting with Chuck was a necessary step to instill confidence in the project because our team could ask questions and find out best practices as well as lessons learned.”
Nixon also shared that Huestess told those at the meeting that Wilkes County had assisted Bladen County a while ago, and he thought this was a great way to give back. Nixon hopes to pay it forward as well.
“I am willing to share our experience, processes, and lessons learned throughout developing a building, which we are now leasing, as well as long-term ownership of a building,” said Nixon. “In economic development, we don’t typically have the experience of building an industrial building. We know about buildings and how to market them, but we aren’t usually the developers.”
She shared that county collaboration was critical to moving the project from funded to finished.
“We created a small, collaborative committee that consisted of county and senior EDC leadership,” said Nixon. “This team had the background we needed, including an engineer and property managers with experience in commercial leases. It is important to have a smaller committee to get things done such as making day-to-day decisions throughout the process.”
She also added that Golden LEAF staff and Huestess continued to serve as a resource throughout the process.
“We established a great relationship with Golden LEAF staff members Ted Lord and Jason Rochelle along the way,” said Nixon. “They took the time to review the lease rate structure and lease agreement, among other major project support. We also checked in with Heustess regularly with any questions.”
Nixon shared her gratitude not only for the Golden LEAF funding but the relationships the Community-Based Grants Initiative helped foster.
“The relationships built through the Golden LEAF Community-Based Grants Initiative process will help us for years to come,” said Nixon. “Golden LEAF not only unified the counties in the Northwest Prosperity Zone through the Community-Based Grants Initiative process, but also helped broker a closer relationship with Bladen County’s EDC.”
Nixon is excited for the future of Wilkes County.
“We are starting with the Wilkes Commercial Business Center at a size we could provide the funding for,” said Nixon. “Then we hope the next building we will build from lease revenue will be even larger.”