For NCGrowth, immersive trips are a primary way to build relationships with businesses and communities, to identify issues and explore solutions jointly through dialogue and collaboration. On May 31, NCGrowth visited Burlington, North Carolina to learn more about the city’s past, present and future.
The day-long trip was hosted by Burlington Development Director Peter Bishop, and began with a history of the city.
Burlington was established as a strategic rail town in 1857. By the turn of the century, the heart of its economy was its prosperous textile industry, which thrived until the advent of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the early 1990s. NAFTA drastically altered Burlington’s economic base, forcing the majority of textile operations overseas, leading to the loss of more than 2,000 community jobs over the course of 20 years.
Today, Burlington faces the same challenge as many communities that have experienced similar changes – how to create more jobs and revitalize its economy. What does the future of Burlington look like, and what is the plan to get there? These were the primary questions examined by the diverse group of local government representatives, small business owners, nonprofit personnel and NCGrowth staff during the May 31 discussions.
One of the major steps to establishing a foundation for revitalization is the recent relocation to Burlington of the headquarters of LabCorp, one of the largest clinical laboratories in the world. Equally important has been the growth of small businesses who proudly call Burlington home, several of whom connected with NCGrowth on the immersive trip.
One business, Your Local Greens, is an indoor, organic hydroponic farm that opened just six months ago. The company discussed how it transformed a former textile factory into an innovative, state-of-the-art hydroponic farm, which also provides meaningful work for adults with autism and dissociative identity disorder (DDI). Another company, Southland Electrical Supply, which distributes industrial electrical products for large-scale power projects, gave insight into their plans for growth and their local community focus, which they maintain despite servicing big-name, industry leaders. Participants took a tour of the plant, which was led by the father-and-daughter team of Mike Griggs, vice president, and Katie Chung, sales and purchasing manager.
The rise of Burlington’s food and beverage industry was also on display. Participants enjoyed a delicious, down-home lunch from Occasions and a trip to Smitty’s Homemade Ice Cream. Located in the heart of downtown, Smitty’s has been “Making the Best Ice Cream for the Nicest People” since 2002.
Another of the day’s highlights was a tour of Burlington Beer Works given by Eric Henry, brewery board member and CEO and President of T-shirt manufacturer TS Designs. Burlington Beer Works is the city’s first brewery and only the third co-op brewery in the U.S. With 2,178 current owners from the local community, the brewery and its associated restaurant have the potential to be become a key element of Burlington’s renewal and growth efforts.
Finally, the group got a look at the unique Burlington business of Ruben Olmos. Olmos, president of the Lowyalty Car Club and recipient of the Brown-Hudson Folklore Award, collects, restores, and designs vintage lowrider cars.
The immersive experience began and ended with dialogue at Impact Alamance, a creative hub for nonprofit collaboration. Representatives from El Centro Hispano, the African American Cultural Arts and History Center, the Brian Hamilton Foundation and the North Carolina Zoo participated in the sessions, along with members of the SunTrust Foundation, the Consulate of Mexico, the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts, and the Burlington Downtown Corporation.
One of the prospective development strategies discussed was NCGrowth’s SmartUp program. SmartUp aims to transform communities by supporting businesses committed to local hiring, connecting entrepreneurs to resources and strengthening existing entrepreneurial ecosystems.
This theme of creative collaboration was present throughout the day, uniting participants from local government, business, nonprofits and academia. The strong partnerships fostered in Burlington will no doubt form a solid foundation for the city’s efforts to write a new chapter for its future.