SANFORD, N.C. — Industry received a boost this spring when the Innovation Center of Lee County opened for business.
Occupying the former Trans-Matic building in in Lee County Industrial Park, the Innovation Center is owned and operated by the county government and created to cultivate new industry.
When fully occupied, it will include a training center for Central Carolina Community College, industrial incubator space for startup industry and offices for the Lee County Economic Development Corp., which moved to the facility in February.
Another office will be used by the college to coordinate training throughout the region in lean manufacturing techniques and entrepreneurship.
Nova Materials, which has leased 4,000 square feet of the building, is the first company to take advantage of the Innovation Center as an industrial incubator.
Gary Grena, a partner in Nova Materials, says his company has already installed equipment and soon will be testing a special alloy that could have applications in several industries.
The Innovation Center, he says, offers advantages that are hard to find anywhere — most notably, an impressive, but affordable, industrial space that shows investors his company is serious.
"We'd love to buy one of the buildings in the industrial park and start off with a million-dollar operation," he explains. "But this allows us to start small and grow."
Grena says it also helps to be in the same building with Lee County Economic Development. When investors visit, he introduces them to economic development director Bob Heuts, who can explain the "ins and outs" of local industry.
"We can show our investors that Lee County is open for business — that they won't stand in the way of industrial expansion. They're pro-jobs and pro-growth."
Central Carolina Community College will use another portion of the building for industrial skills training.
In its initial project, the college will provide training for Caterpillar's coming expansion. Once that project is finished, the center will be used to assist other industries and provide training in quality, safety, leadership and other areas needed for companies to remain competitive.
Cathy Swindell, director of industry services for the college, says the area has needed this kind of venue and equipment to offer targeted training — and that's even more critical now.
"After going through the latest recession, industry leaders are placing a strong emphasis on developing employees in both technical and other skills so they can meet demands in the market," says Swindell. "The equipment and training available at the Innovation Center — and our ability to react quickly — will help us meet those needs in a big way."
County manager John Crumpton says the facility was purchased by the county and equipment was funded largely by a $447,000 grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation, a nonprofit organization established in 1999 to help transform North Carolina's economy through grants focused on tobacco-dependent, economically distressed or rural communities.
The county initially planned to build a separate facility at the CCCC Telecommunications School for the Caterpillar training that is bringing at least 325 new jobs to the area.
"There was no building the right size for the county to purchase," says Crumpton. "So, the county commissioners decided to look at the possibility of new construction. When an option to purchase this existing building came along. It gave us three times the space for the same price as the new construction, and it opened all kinds of other opportunities we didn't have before."
Though the Innovation Center opens with several tenants already in place, some space remains for new companies looking for a way to get started with a minimal capital investment.
"That's one reason we're calling this the Innovation Center," says Heuts. "Not only is the facility innovative in the way it's created and managed, but this is a place where a lot of innovative things take place. It should give us an edge over other communities.
"Fledgling companies make innovative ideas a reality, existing companies refine new processes and all of the activity, combined, creates the kind of entrepreneurial climate that will make our area stronger for everyone."
The Lee County Economic Development Corp. is a nonprofit organization established to attract industry, enhance job opportunities and promote sound planning across Lee County. Funding is provided by the county, as well as the City of Sanford and Town of Broadway, the county's two municipalities.
Bob Heuts, Director
Jane Wesley, Administrative Assistant