The year 2020 brought hardships to many but Greenville and Pitt County can enter 2021 with hope for brighter economic times as several job expansions and building projects are on the horizon.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced shutdowns and reduced hours for manufacturing, retail and the service industry. Two of the region’s largest employers, East Carolina University and Vidant Health, were among those to layoff and furlough workers.
Like most of the United States, the county’s unemployment rate rose to double-digits in the spring because of job losses linked to stay-at-home orders that shut down restaurants, beauty salons, gyms and other businesses then allowed them to reopen with capacity limits and other restrictions.
Pitt County’s unemployment rate grew to 10.3 percent in May, according to state data. In 2019, the rate was 4.3. One of the largest layoffs locally occurred just before Gov. Roy Cooper ordered people to stay home because of the pandemic.
Vidant Health laid off nearly 200 people in mid-March because of decreasing Medicaid reimbursements and increasing costs. CEO Michael Waldrum said the organization had to accommodate an $18 million revenue shortfall.
Vidant provides $200 million in uncompensated medical care each year. While it receives some additional Medicaid funding to cover some of the uncompensated costs, that amount was set to decrease in 2020 because North Carolina did not expand Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, Waldrum said.
The health care system along with ECU later announced more job cuts due to the pandemic, which forced hospitals to curtail revenue-producing services not related to the care of COVID patients.
East Carolina announced at least four rounds of furloughs starting in June to help mitigate revenues lost when the virus forced officials to largely close the campus to students.
Subsequent rounds came in September and November, with the last in December targeting top administrators including interim Chancellor Ron Mitchelson.
The cuts saved the university more than $4 million to address a shortfall in revenues campuswide. Mitchelson said almost 260 of his colleagues were experiencing some form of furlough, whether it was part-time or full-time.
“So for us as leaders, I do feel very strongly that we need to pony up ourselves to make sure that everybody understands this burden that we are experiencing is, in fact, shared,” Mitchelson said.
ECU at that time formed a Fiscal Sustainability Coordinating Committee to help the university plan how to adapt to economic challenges.
While the rollout of vaccines in December gave hope to many that the worst of the pandemic may soon be over, several economic bright spots emerged throughout the year. One Greenville company reported it was not only weathering the pandemic, but thriving.
The Hammock Source, which is the world’s largest manufacturer and seller of hand-crafted hammocks, in September reported it had seen a 300 percent jump in sales as people forced to stay home began modifying their living spaces, including their outdoor spaces.
“People are staying home more,” said Todd Nifong, The Hammock Source’s vice president of sales and marketing. “They are nesting, and wanting to create more space at home. A natural extension of the home is an outdoor space.”
As a result of demand and a decision to curtail outsourcing and consolidate manufacturing in Greenville, the company has been on a hiring spree since the summer, partnering with Pitt Community College to offer a program called Advanced Manufacturing Institute hopes of bringing in skilled workers.
Another boost came in July when Victra, the largest independent retailer for Verizon Wireless, opened a new TeleSales Center in Greenville.
The Greenville City Council awarded the company a Job Creation Grant that will provide up to $500,000 over a five-year period. The company must provide 200 new jobs to the area by the end of 2025. The jobs must be maintained up to three years after the final grant payment.
Victra was founded as a partnership by Rich and David Balot in October 1996 was incorporated as ABC Phones of North Carolina in 1999. Today, Victra employs more than 4,500 people at 1,000 locations across 46 states.
In August, an Edgecombe County boat builder announced it was opening a production facility in Pitt County, investing nearly $9 million in the project that will add 60 jobs.
The company’s Tarboro location will remain operational as part of the move — rather than moving both operations out of state. The Greenville location is the former Camping World Distribution Center on Staton Road. The building is being retrofitted for boat building.
In December, Thermo Fisher Scientific, an international drug manufacturer, and Grover Gaming, a software development and design firm, announced they were collectively hiring 700 people over the next several years because of business expansion.
Thermo Fisher Scientific is already one of Greenville’s largest employers with about 1,500 people on the payroll. The company is adding 500 jobs over the next two years as part of a $500 million investment to expand its Greenville facilities.
The company expects to hire about 500 more people for sterile drug product development and commercial manufacturing of critical medicines, therapies and vaccines.
Construction is already underway on a new standalone facility that will have two live vaccine filling lines. It should be completed and operational in 2022.
Grover Gaming, which specializes in electronic gaming software, announced earlier in the year it was adding 100 local jobs. With a subsequent decision to expand its Greenville headquarters, the company announced this month it would add another 100 local jobs to its roster.
The announcement of a $155 million development project in October promised immense economic opportunity as it begins work to transform the historic warehouse district into an urban hub where people can live and work.
East Carolina University and developer Elliott Sidewalk Communities said Intersect East, part of ECU’s Millennial Campus, eventually will encompass 14 buildings comprising about 1.3 million square feet of space on the south side of 10th Street west of Evans Street. The project is expected to take place in four phases over eight years beginning in late 2021.
In addition to the renovation of historic buildings, the project is slated to include new construction. It will include space for research and development, offices, retail, residential and parking.
“We’re building a destination here, a magnet,” Mitchelson said. “It’s a magnet that will attract talent. It’s a magnet that will attract investment.”
Speaking at a news conference inside the 115-year-old Prichard-Hughes warehouse, Elliott said potential occupants for Intersection East already have been identified and will include primarily research, engineering, tech, bio and pharma outfits.
According to statistics provided by ECU and Elliott Sidewalk Communities, with a $300 million investment, tax revenues could exceed $3 million annually. An estimated 1,500 jobs predicted for the millennial campus could potentially have an economic impact of more than $140 million a year, officials said.
The project will rise within site of ECU’s $90 million Life Science and Biotecnolgy Building, which was topped out in February 2020 and is slated to open in August, 2021.
The 141,500-square-foot facility will be home for the university’s department of biology and will house researchers with interests and expertise in the fields of biotechnology, bioprocessing, biophysics, biofuels, imaging and sensor development and environmental engineering.
A walkway over 10th Street is planned to connect Intersect East with new ECU building and a boardwalk, hiking and biking trail.
The Intersect East announcement was followed in December by news of an effort to transform another part of the city’s tobacco past, but plans for this one are for food and lodging.
A group of local developers calling themselves The Stark Group plan to rehabilitate the E.B. Ficklen and Star Tobacco warehouse site, which borders Eighth, Ninth, Washington and Ficklen Streets as well as some surrounding property.
Three of the buildings will house the 70-room Ficklen Hotel, said Kimberly L. Christner of Cornerstone Hospitality, which will manage the property once it is opened. The facility will feature a restaurant, lobby and 10,000-square-foot event space. The adjacent Star Warehouse will host a 76,000-square-foot food hall and market. Construction is expected to begin in the spring and the opening is set for the fall of 2022.
“We are creating a destination that will attract not only those visiting Greenville but will be of service to the residents in our community as well,” said Tucker Stallings, one of the developers. “Greenville is growing and there are so many great restaurants, shops and cultural venues in the Uptown area. What doesn’t currently exist is an upscale boutique hotel destination with services to match.”
It’s the fourth hotel project announced for the downtown, although the pandemic has slowed plans to construct a hotel and apartments at the city-owned Imperial Tobacco Warehouse property off Dickinson Avenue and another at the corner of Fourth and Reade streets, an ECU parking lot the university leased to a Greensboro company for the construction of a university-themed hotel.
In August, the city council approved selling two lots of Evans Street to Greenville Ventures so the company can build a hotel. The deal also included an arrangement where the city will lease space in the Fourth Street Parking Deck to the hotel.