Jody Greene shows a handful of biomass from hemp plants at Carmichael Brothers Distillery in Laurinburg on Aug. 23. The biomass will then go through a CO2 distillation process to create crude hemp oil. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press

Historically, Scotland County had some of the highest unemployment rates of any county in the state, with a July unemployment rate of 9.3%, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. 

Despite these persistently high joblessness numbers, some county residents say they will change the narrative through local revitalization efforts to draw outside investors.

A recent surge in applications to open new businesses in the county along the state’s central border with South Carolina suggests the efforts may be paying off, offering hope to many county residents looking for work. 

Before the unemployment caused by COVID-19, the county saw a strong trend in reducing unemployment with a rate of 5.8% in February 2020, the lowest for Scotland County since 2000, according to data from the Department of Commerce.

Three years ago, the city of Laurinburg made the decision to become part of Main Street America, said Wayne Farrah, director of the Small Business Center based on Richmond Community College’s Laurinburg campus. The revitalization would focus on stimulating the economy through new business opportunities while still preserving the historical nature of downtown. 

The efforts led by the Downtown Advisory Committee were seeing significant progress in 2019 with unemployment decreasing steadily, but COVID-19 derailed many of the in-person events, forcing the efforts to move online, Farrah said.

In the aftermath of the initial waves of the pandemic, the county saw tremendous employee losses in the hospitality, retail and health care sectors, according to Mark Ward, Scotland County’s economic development director.

“I can’t think of one employer that’s not looking for help right now,” he said. “That goes from small mom and pop shop businesses all the way up to the big ones like Campbell Soup.” The Campbell Soup Co. operates a plant in Maxton, just across the Robeson County line. 

At its peak, the county’s unemployment rate was 16.4% in May 2020 and remained above 10% until March 2021, according to the Department of Commerce.

As of August, about 700 job vacancies were available in Scotland County, according to NC Works, an online resource run by the Department of Commerce that lists available jobs. The jobs range from ones with no experience needed to those requiring advanced college degrees.

“We’re here to promote our area businesses and the community as a whole,” said Chris English, executive director of the Laurinburg/Scotland County Area Chamber of Commerce. 

“We share all the positive things that are going on in the county because we all hear nothing but negative.”

Scotland Incubator Park is a new business park associated with an economic development push for the area. It currently houses Carmichael Brothers Distillery, a CBD oil manufacturer. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press

Response to COVID-19 and unexpected growth

Even during times of high unemployment, the county saw an unprecedented increase in new businesses opening, according to Farrah. 

Between June 2020 and July 2021, the Small Business Center worked with community members to open 14 new businesses. 

The new businesses created and maintained a total of 104 jobs.

Statewide, nearly 127,000 new businesses filed with the N.C. secretary of state’s Business Registration Division in 2020, a 27% increase from the nearly 100,000 filings recorded in 2019, according to a news release from the state.

Scotland County saw the most growth out of all counties, with a 211% increase in new business filings, or a tripling of the number of new filings from the previous year, going from 81 in the 12 months prior to July 2020 to 252 during the following 12 months.

According to Farrah, people who had been laid off or decided to change careers started many of these businesses.  

In addition to the new businesses, Farrah helped existing businesses transition beyond solely brick-and-mortar stores through the Small Business Center. Many of the transitions involved creating websites, developing marketing strategies and shipping products out of state. 

The practices were born of a need to survive but became permanent for the businesses. Across the board, businesses have become more profitable by not limiting themselves to their physical location, Farrah said. 

Despite the success, many of the businesses in Laurinburg continue to have reduced hours typically because they do not have the staff to remain open seven days a week or face the challenge of paying employees overtime because they are so short-staffed. 

Laurinburg is seeing new businesses and receiving funding for economic development. The water tower sets in a recently developed business park called Scotland Incubator Park off U.S. 401. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press

The workforce and training exist

There is no shortage of a workforce in the county. According to NC Works, Scotland County has about 8,600 potential candidates in the workforce that could fill the vacant 700 jobs. 

Part of the recent success for the trained workforce is a product of Richmond Community College’s Workforce & Economic Development Division. The workforce division is distinct from the academic division of the college because classes are not for college credit. 

Instead, the program offers short-term courses that typically provide training or certification in the workforce like nurse assistant classes, Quickbook lessons and industrial maintenance mechanic certification. 

“Any community college is part of the economic engine of their community, and they should be,” said Sheri Dunn-Ramsay, vice president of marketing and strategic planning at Richmond Community College. 

In contrast to the college credit side of the college in which students might transfer to a university and are not expected to return home, school leaders hope workforce training students remain in the area after completing their classes, said Dunn-Ramsay.

The college works closely with the county’s development office and local employers to tailor their offerings so that the training can lead to potential employment in the area. If a program isn’t leading to employment, it is phased out. 

“We kind of hope our goal is to educate and train up our local citizens so that they can have a better quality of life.”

Across the board, there simply aren’t enough properly trained students for the positions employers want to fill, said Dunn-Ramsay. In particular, the health care industry and manufacturers have been seeking skilled workers, but there aren’t enough of them in the area, leaving those jobs vacant.

The Laurinburg-Maxton Airport in eastern Scotland County, seen here on Aug. 23, is hoping to receive approval from the FAA for extension of a runway at the airport. If approved, it would be the one of the five longest runways in North Carolina. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press

Lack of infrastructure

To address unemployment at the county level and stimulate the economy on a larger scale, the county has to draw in major companies. 

The county has seen some recent success with companies like Mountaire Farms and Edwards Wood Products investing $65 million and $30 million, respectively, in 2018, according to press releases. 

In 2019, Carmichael Farms moved into a 20,000-square-foot building with an investment of $26.5 million investment and created 50 jobs. However, that was the last available building suitable for major companies to move into, said Ward.

In the early stages of companies choosing a location, they commonly conduct a search with a square-foot requirement. The state sends out the information to see which counties respond with that availability. 

Scotland County does not have any buildings suitable to house a major company. To remedy the situation, SCEDC is looking to build a series of vacant buildings suitable for companies as part of the 82-acre Scotland Incubator Park. Carmichael Farms was the first addition to the incubator. 

The N.C. Economic Development Association awarded SCEDC a $2 million grant to aid in the construction of a 50,000-square-foot building that will serve as the second building in the park. To complete the $3 million project, SCEDC aims to secure the remaining $1 million either through internal funds or private funds. 

The goal is to continue adding buildings with varying square footage within the park. 

“You can’t attract a person to buy a car if you only have one car,” Ward said.

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Arturo Pineda is a former reporter with Carolina Public Press and Report for America fellow.