After spending two jam-packed days in Charleston, I drove to Greensboro, N.C. It gave me the opportunity to see some beautiful country. I drove by cattle ranches, tobacco farms and tree farms of Curly Pines, which I learned are the best pines to use for furniture.
I had written about the devastation of the textile and furniture industry in my book published in 2009. I wrote, “North Carolina has been the most impacted state in the nation by layoffs due to trade. Between 2004 and 2006, almost 39,000 North Carolina workers have been certified by the Trade Adjustment Assistance program as having lost jobs to trade, more than 10% of the U.S. total of 386,755.” Thus, I was very interested in visiting North Carolina to see what had happened to the textile mills and furniture factories and what new manufacturing sectors had developed.
My host for the trip was the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce, which is actually a combined chamber and economic development agency, and Brent Christensen, president and CEO, was my main tour guide. The Piedmont-Triad consists of the area within and surrounding the three major cities of Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point. The metropolitan area is connected by Interstates 40, 85, 73, and 74 and is served by the Piedmont Triad International Airport. Long known as one of the primary manufacturing and transportation hubs of the southeastern United States, the Triad is also an important educational and cultural region.
These cities closely collaborate, so Loren Hill, president of the High Point Economic Development Corporation and Robert Leak, Jr. president of Winston-Salem Business Inc. shared the tour guide task. Mary Wilson, communications & public relations manager for the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, drove over from Cary, N.C., to join us on the plant tours.
Our first visit was to a company occupying a 100-year old former textile mill in High Point. We met with Tom Van Dessel, CEO of BuzziSpace, who said they moved into the building in the summer of 2014. BuzziSpace is a Belgian company that has a manufacturing plant in the Netherlands. The company makes acoustical furnishings that absorb sound to reduce noise and provide privacy in imaginative designs.
Van Dessel said, “We have about 40 employees now and will be up to about 115 soon. We are already producing about 30-35% of our products in this plant. We were originally looking for about a 30,000 – 35,000 sq. ft. building, but wound up selecting this 120,000-sq. ft., three-story, red brick building because of the potential. We funded a local printing/silk-screen company (Splash Works) to be a tenant on the first floor of our building to be our vendor for digital printing on their fabric and felt furnishings. Our felt is made from recycled PET (soda bottles) mixed with 5% virgin industrial felt. We started with five colors of felt and now we have 12 colors. We have a sole-source contract with the company that makes the felt. Some of our products are acoustical panels, furniture, honeycomb screens, lighting, filing cabinet covers, room partitions and various configuration of privacy spaces. Everyone wants open office space for collaboration, but you need to have private spaces for private conversations. Our panels absorb noise in certain wavelengths.”
The various configurations of privacy spaces have names like BuzziBooth, BuzziHood, BuzziHive, and BuzziHub. Three of us sat in a BuzziHub (two couches facing each other with panels behind the couches), and the other two couldn’t hear what any of us were saying from a few feet away.
He explained, “We wanted to engage the community we are in, so we planted a community garden in the large “front yard” of our building. Our employees planted fruit trees, vegetables, berry bushes, and Muscadine grapes. At first, the vegetables and berries will be shared by our employees, but when the crops are larger, they will be shared with the surrounding community. We want what we are doing to be an example to others to do similar things. We are surrounded by small ‘mill’ houses that may still be occupied by former workers of the textile mill. Now, we are hiring some as workers.”
As we drove through High Point on the way to our next stop, Hill explained that while the city is no longer the hub of furniture manufacturing, it is still the hub for corporate offices, design centers, distribution centers and furniture show rooms.
He said, “When I was growing up, it was an ordinary downtown of shops, offices, and restaurants, but now nearly every building downtown, including the former post office and library, have been converted to furniture show rooms. The city hosts the High Point Market, the largest furnishings industry trade show in the world in April and October, where furniture companies from all over the world display their products. About 75,000 attendees from more than 100 countries come to each market. It’s unbelievably busy during these two weeks of the year, but the rest of the year, the downtown has little activity. The city government is now working hard on a public-private catalyst project to revitalize downtown next to the furniture market area. That catalyst project will include building a multi-use stadium, a convention center, restaurants and shops, office space, a children’s museum, and urban housing.”
Home to an Aerospace Boom
At our next stop, we visited the aviation training facility, located near the airport, and met with Kevin Baker, director of the Piedmont Triad Airport (PTI), and Nick Yale, director of the Guilford Tech Community College Aviation Training Facility.
Baker said, “The Piedmont Triad International Airport is at the center of an aerospace boom that has transformed the I-40 corridor into a job-rich center of aircraft manufacturing, aircraft parts supply and aviation repair and maintenance. The Piedmont Triad region encompasses 12 counties and three major cities: Greensboro, High Point, and Winston-Salem. The Airport Authority is the largest employer in the aerospace industry in the state and the 8th largest employer in the state. We have 1,000 acres of land available for development. We have been very active in bringing aviation companies to the area and are now home to more than 50 companies.”
Honda Aircraft established its world headquarters, R&D, and manufacturing at Piedmont Triad Airport in 2006, and expanded in 2012 with a customer service facility. Honda Aircraft employs about 1,900 people.
He explained, “Honda Aircraft established its world headquarters, R&D, and manufacturing at the airport in 2006, and expanded in 2012 with a customer service facility. Honda Aircraft employs about 1,900 people with an average salary of $75,000, compared to an average salary of $45,000 for other jobs in the region.
HAECO Americas operates 600,000 sq. ft. of space for repair and maintenance services for Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed, and Airbus aircraft, and has about 1,600 employees. In July, HAECO announced it will be building a new $60 million hangar at PTI and will add about 500 jobs. Cessna, part of Textron, established their 46,000-sq. ft. maintenance and service center at the airport in 1993, which has grown to a 137,000 sq. ft. facility, employing about 150 people.”
He added, “FedEx chose PTI because of the exceptional highway connections of I-40, I-85 and I-74. Also, there are four state highway connections to these interstates under construction. FedEx occupies a 500,000-sq. ft. facility at the airport and has about 4,200 employees.”
“What makes our airport unique is that we have land available for development, uncrowded airspace, and parallel runways,” Mr. Baker said. “In addition, we have our aviation training facility.”
Yale, explained, “In 1969, GTCC started its first aviation program, Aviation Management Technology, followed by an avionics and airframe and powerplant mechanics program in 1970.
“We have three buildings, totaling more than 143,000 square feet, located close to each other. The T.H. Davis Aviation Center (Aviation I) is a 36,000 square-foot building owned by PTI that we lease. It has seven classrooms, two computer labs, five laboratory classrooms and a large aircraft hangar with several aircraft including a Boeing 737. It has classes in all of our aviation curriculum. It also houses our aviation department administration and several faculty. Our aviation university partner, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU), is also housed in this building.
“Our Aviation II is a 60,000 square-foot building, located adjacent to the airport and close to several aviation manufacturing and repair companies. While we lease this building from the Samet Corp., we have upgraded it several times to address special needs for aviation education. It contains seven classrooms, 14 specialty laboratories as well as faculty office space. It largely supports the aviation systems technology and aviation electronics technology programs, as well as non-credit (continuing education) programs in aviation.
Our new aviation building, (Aviation III), was opened in the fall of 2014 next to the Aviation II building. It has 42,000 square-feet and contains general classrooms, computer labs, a flight simulator lab, library and various student services spaces. It supports the college’s Aviation Management/Career Pilot program.”
He gave me flyers describing their aviation training curriculum for the following:
- Aviation Management & Career Pilot Technology
- Aviation Systems Technology
- Aviation Electronics “Avionics” Technology
- Aerostructures Manufacturing & Repair
He said, “The Aerostructures Manufacturing & Repair Certificate is a 17-week program, and about 90% of students get hired upon completion. We have expanded and tailored our programs to train people exactly the way our aviation industry wants. We are getting ready to work with HAECO on three more programs next year. Delta Airlines came to us because 80% of their employees would be eligible to retire in the next five years. They needed a new generation of trained workers.
“We are working with Andrews High School in High Point to train high school students in an aviation technology apprenticeship program funded by the state legislature. We had 23 students sign up to participate in the apprenticeship program last spring. The students go to school in the morning and work for companies in the afternoon. A consortium of local companies is responsible for initiating the program. HAECO just did an interview process for 50 students to be apprentices.
It was a pleasure seeing how industries outside of furnishings and textiles are expanding in North Carolina and how former textile mills are being re-purposed. My next article will feature more about the apprenticeship program with interviews with a couple of manufacturers that started the program and highlight more about the redevelopment of former textile mills.