Artist's rendering shows how the new Amgen site in Wake County may look when it's completed. Courtesy of Amgen

A new drug manufacturing facility in Wake County recently announced by Amgen is expected to bring more than 350 jobs to Holly Springs. 

However, increased development in the area has raised concerns about affordable housing and who can afford to live there. 

Amgen, based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., announced plans Aug. 3 to expand its operations to North Carolina, stating that the new 220,000-square-foot facility will be in operation by 2025. Located at Friendship Innovation Park near the intersection of N.C. 540 and U.S. 1, the facility will be the first company on the grounds. 

The 400-acre park will join the already established Holly Springs Business Park, home to Seqirus’ and FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies’ $2 billion campus, currently under construction. 

Amgen marks the 47th life-science project that the state has recruited since 2017, totaling 7,200 jobs. 

The average wage for Amgen’s 355 jobs will be $119,510, almost double Wake County’s average salary of $63,966, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. The company projects its median salary at the site will be $89,000 according to state documents. 

The facility will mark the company’s first venture into North Carolina; however, it already has about 140 remote workers in the state. The majority of the employees work in sales positions, not manufacturing. 

Wake County has one of the strongest county economies in the state, being part of the Research Triangle and the center of state government.

State funding assistance

Amgen received financial incentives from the state through the Job Development Investment Grant approved by the state’s Economic Investment Committee. In total, the N.C. Department of Commerce offered about $12 million in grants disbursed over the course of 12 years.

The Department of Commerce estimated the project could grow the state’s economy by $2.5 billion. The state incentives received approval Aug. 3 at the state Economic Investment Committee meeting in Raleigh.

As part of the grant, the company is eligible to receive potential reimbursement based on a number of factors, such as tax rates, labor availability and overall project development cost.

The state only uses the grant in competitive situations, such as an outside investor considering other locations besides North Carolina or an existing North Carolina business considering expansion outside the state. In both of these cases, the grant incentivizes companies to choose North Carolina, said David Rhoades, communications director for the Department of Commerce. 

Before deciding on North Carolina, Amgen considered Houston, according to state documents. The city of Houston offered the company $110 million worth of incentives in the form of property tax abatements and cash grants.

To receive the North Carolina grant annually, the company must meet certain benchmarks and continue to maintain them on a yearly basis. Amgen must complete investing the minimum amount of $380.5 million and have hired all 355 employees by the end of 2029.

The 355 jobs will be broken down into 26 manufacturing and quality managers, 220 engineers, 40 quality inspectors and 69 administrative positions. Amgen did not provide annual wages for each of the positions. 

Local funding and striking a balance

Locally, Wake County and Holly Springs offered about a combined $23 million in incentives to the company over the course of eight years.

Through Wake County’s Business Development Grant, Amgen will pay 100% of its property taxes based on new investment in the county based on an evaluation from the Wake County manager’s office, said Michael Haley, executive director for Wake County Economic Development and a senior vice president of the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. 

After completing the payment, the company would be awarded back 50% of those taxes, totaling $13.2 million.

The town will follow a similar approach of reimbursing 50% of the paid taxes for eight years but only up to $9.5 million. 

The town will also provide all necessary rights of way and coordinate with the N.C. Department of Transportation for the construction of road improvements identified in a future traffic impact analysis. 

City officials approved the grant Aug. 17. The Wake County Board of Commissioners was expected to vote on approving the grant today. 

Housing the workforce 

Wake County’s housing market is under pressure from all directions, said Lorena McDowell, the county’s director of affordable housing and community revitalization. Currently, it is not uncommon for houses to sell within a day of being on the market with multiple offers having been submitted the same day. 

The median real estate sale price has gone up every month since January, according to a report from the county Register of Deeds. The June median sale price was $383,000 compared with the January median of $302,000, with no indication of prices dropping.

According to a 2019 study by the N.C. Housing Coalition, about 1 in 4 Wake County households overall and 41% of renters are cost burdened, meaning they pay more than 30% of their monthly income on housing and utilities. And those figures are prior to the recent housing price boom.

The county has become a desirable destination for outside developers just as it has for individual homeowners, McDowell said. As a result, developers have purchased large plots of land, leaving Wake County with less area to build affordable housing.

The situation affects both workers and students seeking job training. Wake Technical Community College recently donated 6 acres to the county for the purpose of building affordable housing, with 30% of the units set aside for Wake Tech students who meet certain criteria. 

According to a survey completed in 2020, 48% of students experienced some form of housing insecurity, and 14% identified as being homeless.

As higher-paying jobs continue to come to the area, housing costs continue to rise. Unfortunately, the county has a poor history of economic mobility. Even when higher-paying jobs come to the county, the people who need them most will not get them, McDowell said. 

A significant gap exists between being a renter and a homeowner in Wake County due to the capital needed to purchase a house. As a result, she worries that people with well-paying jobs above the county average, such as those who will work for Amgen, may be perpetual renters because they are not able to break into the market. 

To help alleviate the situation, the city and outside partners will need to continue investing in mixed-income housing apartments and programs for first-time homebuyers so that people can eventually transition from renters to homeowners. 

Recruiting Black employees

Amgen made a companywide public commitment in October 2020 to hire more Black employees into well-paying jobs, with a specific focus on people without four-year college degrees. 

Amgen is a founding member of OneTen, a coalition of major national and international companies dedicated to hiring a million Black Americans into family-sustaining careers, according to the coalition’s website. 

According to Amgen’s 2020 Workforce Diversity Report, Black employees were the second-least racially represented demographic, only ahead of Native American employees. 

Amgen did not provide information on how the company will recruit Black employees or what percentage, if any, of the new jobs would be set aside for Black candidates. 

Companies announcing new commitments to hiring more diverse candidates, particularly Black employees, became common in the months after the death of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd, said Henry McKoy, director of entrepreneurship at N.C. Central University.

“I hope that someone having to die is not the hurdle we have to cross to get people to buy ice cream from a Black merchant,” McKoy said. 

The company’s recruitment commitment also coincides with almost all industries across the country facing labor shortages and scrambling to encourage people to return to work. 

McKoy thinks Black communities have historically been sidelined in many businesses’ hiring practices, wasting a readily available workforce.

Clarification: Some statistics about the Wake County and state economies that were initially included in the article have been removed due to potentially misleading context.

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