Archive for April, 2020

4-30-2020 – Report shows tip of economic iceberg

Posted on: April 30th, 2020 by admin


April 30, 2020



By Guy Lucas


Apr 29, 2020 1:16 PM


A new state report is the first to reflect the early economic effects of coronavirus-related business closures, but it only scratches the surface of the recession that was just beginning to unfold.


Caldwell County’s unemployment rate jumped by 0.6 of a percentage point to 4.2 percent in March, the N.C. Labor and Economic Analysis Division reported.


Next month’s report on April unemployment rates is sure to be worse, said Deborah Murray, the executive director of the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission.


“Since unemployment insurance reports are generally collected between the 12th and 15th of each month, the March report shows the drops in employment recorded only through the mid-portion of the month,” she said. “We expect subsequent reports to show increased unemployment through April and into May and perhaps further, depending on the duration of the crisis.”


Also on Wednesday the U.S. Department of Commerce said the national economy shrank at a 4.8% annual rate in the first three months of the year — the first quarterly contraction since 2014 and the largest since the Great Recession, when the economy shrank by 8.4% in the fourth quarter of 2008. The first quarter retreat was a sharp reversal from the 2.1% growth rate at the end of 2019.


The local unemployment rate increased in 97 of the state’s 100 counties – including Burke’s by 0.6 percentage point to 4.1 percent, and Catawba’s by 0.5 to 3.9 percent – in March, the month when Gov. Roy Cooper first ordered bars to close and restaurants to halt dine-in service. He did not order most businesses to close and residents to remain home as much as possible until March 30, a period that will not be covered until the April unemployment report comes out next month.


The Commerce Department said that similar stay-at-home orders across the country led to rapid changes in demand as businesses switched to remote work or closed and consumers cut or changed their spending.


Consumer spending, which accounts for about 70% of GDP, dropped at a 7.6% rate in the first quarter, the biggest decline since 1980.


More than 26 million people have filed unemployment claims in recent weeks.


Murray said that Caldwell and the region were in a good position relative to the rest of the state when the economic crisis began. The county’s March unemployment rate was tied for 33rd best in the state.


And she said some local employers continue to hire more workers.


“I am very thankful for those companies that have maintained employment and kept so many working,” she said. “I am also grateful for the unemployment funds and the stimulus funds that will help to offset the financial hardships caused by COVID-19 and felt by Caldwell families and businesses.”

4-29-2020 – Blue Bell work set for early 2021

Posted on: April 29th, 2020 by admin


April 28, 2020



By Garrett Stell

Apr 28, 2020 4:29 PM


Local leaders say a newly-approved project involving a historic building in Lenoir may be a catalyst for bringing much-needed housing options to Caldwell County.


The Lenoir Planning Board, acting in its capacity as the Lenoir Historic Preservation Committee, has awarded a certificate of appropriateness for a project to convert the Lenoir Blue Bell and Lenoir Cotton Mill properties off College Avenue into 46 market-rate residential apartments.


The property consists of three main historic pieces: the Blue Bell building, the Freight Station depot and the Steele Cotton Mill building. Representatives of Blue Bell Lenoir, the property owners, said that the first phase of construction will begin on the Blue Bell property next spring. The project will maintain the building’s white brick exterior and large windows, and it will include a fitness center, patios and yard areas for residents, and on-site parking. It is expected to take 12 months and cost $14.5 million.


Because the property was made a local historic landmark last June, the construction project must maintain the historical character of the building, Lenoir Planning Director Jenny Wheelock said.


But more importantly, she said, it marks a milestone in the effort to bring more housing options to Lenoir.


“In my opinion, we need more housing, period, so even if they weren’t going to do a historic renovation I think it would still be a positive project,” she said. “But I think it makes it that much more valuable to sort of preserve that industrial heritage in those buildings that aren’t really good for industry anymore and give them new life.”


Shannon Moser, who represented Blue Bell during the board meeting, stressed that the 46 apartments will be market-rate, meaning they will have no rent restrictions.


Wheelock said that adding a large number of market-rate apartments so close to downtown can be a boost for the city and county, since most of the recent apartment projects have been for low-income housing.


“What ends up happening is that the newest, nicest apartments in town have a cap on how much money you can make,” she said. “So when businesses recruit employees to come here, they’re not able to find rental housing.”


Increasing the availability of rentals for a wider variety of income levels has been a long but elusive goal for county economic leaders, said Deborah Murrary, executive director of the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission. She sees this new project as a torch-bearer that could show other developers it can be profitable to invest in housing in Caldwell County.


“There is such pent up demand for market-rate apartments that the first development to make it across the finish line will almost certainly enjoy fast success,” she said. “I take calls on a regular basis — even in the midst of COVID-19 — from companies urgently looking for suitable housing opportunities for new employees. … This is the bellwether project for multi-family development and should be a home run.”


Lenoir Mayor Joe Gibbons said he hopes that the new development will fill quickly, giving confidence to other developers.


“You need that first one to get going and let people see that the economy is moving that way again,” he said. “We’ve already had a lot of interest in other housing developments in our area anyway, but to get something like this off the ground will really show others that the market is here for it. I think this will be the catalyst to kick-start us into where we want to go.”

4-24-2020 – Buses bring internet to students

Posted on: April 27th, 2020 by admin


April 24, 2020



Apr 24, 2020 5:36 PM


With classes now being held via Zoom and other online platforms, students who don’t have internet access at home have been largely cut off from regular daily interactions with teachers and classmates.


But a new partnership in Caldwell County is taking the internet on the road, and school officials hope it will help bring these students and mostly rural communities back into the fold in a world made virtual because of COVID-19.


Thanks to technology from Google and support from the Education Foundation Inc. of Caldwell County, more than 30 Caldwell County school buses have been retrofitted to become rolling hotspots for internet access. These buses are now being deployed in rural areas around the county.


Ben Willis, director of the Education Foundation, said that with Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision to close schools for the rest of the year, the rollout couldn’t have come at a better time.


Each bus is equipped with a cellular hotspot that creates an internet signal that can then be amplified into the immediate surrounding area, said Scott Adams of Aerolina, the Charleston-based internet company that completed the bus upgrades.


The hotspot technology previously had been used in the Rolling Study Halls program to give kids with long bus rides internet access during their commute, but Adams said that when the COVID-19 crisis hit and schools were closed, Google contacted him about doing more.


“Google asked, ‘Can’t we just take those buses, park them somewhere and power them up and allow people to come park and sit around the buses and use the internet?’ ” he said. “So we mounted antennas on the roofs of the buses that put out a Wi-Fi signal that covers 200-300 feet around the bus.”


The buses first went out into the community Thursday and Friday, and Willis said project leaders are focused on finding the most effective sites for them to park. Adams said that the buses can use empty lots at churches, community centers or other open spaces where students can be spaced apart from one another but still close enough to get the hotspot signal.


The process isn’t perfect, Adams, said, because the internet speed will still be reliant on the strength of the cellphone service in the area, but it provides a place for internet access for students who otherwise would not have internet access at all.


Currently, public schools are operating through a combination of online lessons and take-home assignment packets, and teachers around the county have learned that many of their students don’t have either access to the internet or the right technology at home for online learning. At West Caldwell High School alone, teachers prepare and print over 140 assignment packets a week.


Randy Church, chairman of the Caldwell County Board of Commissioners, said that the new rolling hotspots will fill a need among rural residents that has been made even worse by the COVID-19 crisis.


“Social distancing guidelines have brought to light a persistent quandary for many rural communities: When schools pivot to an online experience, what are areas without broadband to do?” he said.


The buses will also serve as a resource for students enrolled at Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute, approximately 38% of whom are high school students taking classes at the college, college President Dr. Mark Poarch said.


The buses will be tracked and their positions will be posted live on the Caldwell County Schools’ website.


Willis said that he recognizes the irony of asking families to go online to find out where they can go for internet access, but as the program continues and bus locations become more stable, families will be able to expect them in certain locations on a regular basis.


Reporter Garrett Stell can be reached at 828-610-8723.

4-24-2020 – Governor sets plan to reopen businesses

Posted on: April 24th, 2020 by admin


April 18, 2020



By Paul B. Johnson
High Point Enterprise

Apr 23, 2020 8:50 PM


Gov. Roy Cooper has extended the stay-at-home and other coronavirus emergency orders until May 8.


The governor implemented the orders last month. They were set to expire April 29.


At a briefing in Raleigh on Thursday, the governor said the state is making progress on slowing the spread of COVID-19 cases but not enough to lift restrictions now. However, Cooper outlined how he envisions people in the state and region returning in stages over a period of about two months to activities such as dining at restaurants, shopping at stores and gathering in larger numbers at events and during other activities.


State schools remain under an order to remain closed through May 15. Cooper said that he would have an update on the public schools closure today.


“The health and safety of people in North Carolina must be our top priority. This plan provides a roadmap for us to begin easing restrictions in stages to push our economy forward,” the governor said.


Cooper outlined how the restrictions will be lifted in phases, such as limited opening of restaurants with reduced capacity and allowing people out for more commercial activity. The mass gathering ban will be eased incrementally to allow for activities, the governor said.


Based on the progress countering the COVID-19 spread, the governor outlined a three-phase process for easing stay-at-home and other restrictions.


Phase one:


  • Modify the stay-at-home order to allow people to leave home for commercial activity at any business that is allowed to be open, such as clothing stores, sporting goods stores, book shops, houseware stores and other retailers.
  • Ensure that any stores that open will implement social distancing, hygiene and cleaning protocols and COVID-19 symptom screening of employees.
  • Continue to limit gatherings to no more than 10 people.
  • Reopen parks that have been closed, but subject them to the same gathering limitation. Outdoor exercise will continue to be encouraged.
  • Continue to recommend face coverings in public spaces when six feet of distancing isn’t possible.
  • Encourage employers to continue teleworking policies.
  • Continue rigorous restrictions on nursing homes and other congregant care settings.


Phase two, implemented at least two to three weeks after phase one:


  • Lift stay-at-home order while encouraging vulnerable populations to continue staying at home.
  • Allow limited opening of restaurants, bars, fitness centers, personal care services and other businesses that can follow safety protocols, including possibly reducing capacity.
  • Allow gathering at places such as houses of worship and entertainment venues at reduced capacity.
  • Increase the number of people allowed at gatherings.
  • Open public playgrounds.
  • Continue rigorous restrictions on nursing homes and other congregant care settings.


Phase three, implemented at least four to six weeks after phase two:


  • Lessen restrictions for vulnerable populations while encouraging physical distancing and minimizing exposure to settings where distancing isn’t possible.
  • Allow increased capacity at restaurants, bars, other businesses, houses of worships and entertainment venues.
  • Further increase the number of people allowed at gatherings.
  • Continue rigorous restrictions on nursing homes and other congregant care settings.


If the coronavirus trends move in an ominous direction, then the state may have to return to tighter restrictions, Cooper said. And the governor said life won’t return to what was considered normal in the near future.


“We won’t go back to life like it was in January and February any time soon,” Cooper cautioned.

4-18-2020 – Grants awarded to companies promising jobs

Posted on: April 19th, 2020 by admin


April 18, 2020



By Garrett Stell

Apr 17, 2020 3:14 PM


Two Caldwell County projects that together are expected to create nearly 100 new jobs have won grants from the North Carolina Rural Infrastructure Authority.


Woodgrain Millwork in Lenoir, which makes wood moulding products, was approved for a $200,000 building reuse grant to help pay for a $500,000 expansion that could add up to 60 new full-time jobs over the next two years, and the developers of a proposed assisted living center in Granite Falls will receive a $210,000 grant toward the construction of the 57,188-square-foot, 60-bed facility.


Lenoir served as the official grant applicant for the Woodgrain Millwork expansion, which until the RIA’s announcement had been publicly identified only as Project Trilogy.


Rob Hitch, Woodgrain Millwork’s eastern regional manager, said that the grant will allow Woodgrain, which currently has about 140 employees, to continue to build upon recent growth in Lenoir.


The new jobs would pay an average of $39,750 a year, according to a document presented to the Lenoir City Council in February said.


The grant for Grace Village Assisted Living was based on the promise of at least 21 new jobs, but the assisted living center is just the first phase of what is expected to be a retirement community – plans call for independent-living apartments, a gated housing development and a nursing home – that eventually could create 200 jobs, said Deborah Murray, the executive director of the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission.


Construction began in November off Riverbend Drive behind the Walmart in Granite Falls. The assisted living center is expected to be finished by the end of 2020.


Jim Martin, senior partner with Spartan Holdings, the development group behind Grace Village, said that the grant will help expand access to senior living and health care in rural Caldwell County.


Murray said she hopes the two projects inject optimism into the community as the local economy struggles with the effects of COVID-19 precautions.

4-17-2020 – Bankers urge more business funding

Posted on: April 17th, 2020 by admin


April 17, 2020



From Staff Reports

Apr 16, 2020 12:00 PM


A group representing North Carolina banks appealed Thursday for Congress to approve more money for programs intended to help businesses survive through the coronavirus-related economic crisis.


The Small Business Administration announced Thursday morning that all $349 billion that Congress appropriated for the Paycheck Protection Program already had been committed. The program offered loans of up to 250% of a business’s average monthly payroll expenses, and in many cases the federal government will forgive loan amounts that employers spend on payroll, rent, leases, mortgage interest and utilities.


The SBA also said that the $10 billion Congress appropriated for Economic Injury Disaster Loans – which provided a $10,000 advance within just a few days of application for loans of up to $2 million – also was used up.


Through 6:30 a.m. Thursday, the Small Business Association reported that more than $338 billion already had been approved for more than 1.6 million loan approvals – an average loan amount $207,915 – and the NCBA said North Carolina banks made 23,786 PPP loans to small businesses, totaling more than $5.7 billion, an average of $239,638 per loan.


Congressional leaders have publicly voiced support for more funding, but Republicans and Democrats have not been able to agree on the details. Republicans want to limit an “interim” bill to an extra $250 billion for the PPP, and Democrats want to add $100 billion for hospitals, $150 billion for state and local governments and a boost to food assistance.


The NCBA urged small business owners to call their member of Congress at 202-224-3121 to express their support for additional funding.

4-16-2020 – Persistence, patience key for businesses

Posted on: April 16th, 2020 by admin


April 16, 2020





Many small business owners are up late at night worrying about surviving the COVID-19 crisis. Jason Triplett and an army of bankers are also up late, working on the flood of paper work to get business owners the money they need to stay afloat.


Triplett, First Horizon Bank’s Northwest N.C. community bank president, said the most important thing to him and his team is to help small businesses survive.


“I want to assure small business owners that First Horizon and other banks want to help them in every way they can,” he said. “I personally worked 85 hours last week just processing loans for clients. I was literally working until 1:30 in the morning every night, and most of my teammates were, too.”


The sudden tidal wave of applicants that banks are now facing is largely composed of small business owners’ interested in loans from the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, a $349 billion project included in the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.


Congress passed the CARES Act on March 27, and the PPP went live on April 3. But passing the legislation was only a small first step toward getting money in the hands of suffering small business owners, Triplett said.


Banks did not receive guidelines from the SBA until Thursday evening, April 9, and all week the SBA was providing updates to smooth out wrinkles that were the result of using the SBA’s existing network to process the new types of loans.


Non-profits, for instance, are eligible for a PPP loan but are not normally able to borrow from the SBA, he said. Last week, the SBA rewrote the network code to allow applications from non-profits.


Banks also needed to have an army of workers with access to the SBA’s network. Two weeks ago, just five of First Horizon bank’s 5,000 employees had that access. Now that number is over 400, but with more than 15,000 applications for SBA loans currently in the works at First Horizon, Triplett said, the work won’t slow any time soon.


The number of applicants in the first few days put a heavy strain on the system, said Deborah Murray, the executive director of the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission. But business owners should not be afraid that the money will run out, and some local businesses already have been approved for PPP loans, she said.


“There is somewhat of a panic out there,” she said. She advises business owners, “Be persistent and be patient at the same time.”


“There is money out there,” she said. “The bottleneck is thick, and everything will get through at some point.”


Loans are drawn from the $349 billion stimulus package and are available to lenders and their clients on a first-come, first-served basis. Most of the loans will not have to be paid back if the business uses it as instructed by the SBA: At least 75% must be used for payroll costs, while the remainder can be used for overhead costs such as rent and utilities.


In a best-case scenario, Triplett said, an applicant who submitted all of the correct information and was approved could be funded in less than two weeks.


Although business owners may want to apply as quickly as possible to get a spot towards the front of the queue, sending in an incomplete application could be worse than being late, Triplett said. He asks his clients to be patient so that they can submit an accurate application and won’t get far into the process only to find out that something is missing.


“I am personally texting (my clients) each step,” he said. “Because if something is wrong, we could risk the forgiven part of the loan,” and the business then may have to repay the full amount.


Triplett said that all of the new processes and regulations have understandably led to frustrations.


“Banks can’t just turn around and flip a switch,” he said. “We’re trying to process more loans in two to four weeks than we might normally do in a year.”


But like Murray, Triplett is confident that the money will start flowing soon. As of Wednesday morning, First Horizon had approved approximately 7,000 applications for $1.5 billion in funding.


“There are a lot of people working very, very hard because we want to do everything we can to help protect the employees of these small businesses and help these small businesses get through a very tough time that is not their fault,” he said. “This is the time for our industry to really be there for our customers.”


Reporter Garrett Stell can be reached at 828-610-8723.

4-16-2020 – CCCC&TI makes headway on projects

Posted on: April 16th, 2020 by admin


April 16, 2020



By Garrett Stell

Apr 15, 2020 3:23 PM


While campuses remain closed due to the coronavirus, Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute is making progress on infrastructure projects in preparation for the fall semester.


Last May, CCC&TI purchased the former Rite Aid building at the northeast corner of Pine Mountain Road and U.S. 321 and began converting it into the new Paul H. Broyhill Center for Advanced Technologies. The building, which will house the college’s advanced manufacturing, machining and engineering programs, has been undergoing renovations to install a factory floor, classrooms and office spaces.


The floor also needed to be refitted to accommodate heavy machinery, and the CCC&TI Board of Trustees announced Wednesday that the new epoxy floor is now finished, along with new ceilings and sprinkler system upgrades. The 13,600-square-foot building is still on track to be completed over the summer and ready to host classes in August.


In other news, the North Carolina State Board of Community Colleges meets Friday and is expected to approve CCC&TI’s plans for a new indoor electrical lineman education building on the Hudson campus.


Last month the CCC&TI trustees approved a $2 million bid from Garanco, a general contractor out of Pilot Mountain, to construct the building. The project is expected to take eight months and be completed by the end of 2020. Work can move forward after the state board gives it approval.

4-14-2020 – Local economy better than others, official says

Posted on: April 15th, 2020 by admin


April 14, 2020



By Guy Lucas

Apr 14, 2020 10:18 AM


Employers in the Hickory region seem to be faring better overall during the economic crisis than those in other parts of the state, a regional workforce development official said.


There are more than 5,500 job openings in the region that employers are actively trying to fill, including such large employers as Merchants Distributors Inc., Carolina Base Pac and Hickory Springs Manufacturing, said Wendy Johnson director of the Western Piedmont Workforce Development Board. And some employers have shut down operations only because the coronavirus pandemic has interrupted their international supply chain.


“I’m still astounded, talking to employers, at the number that are still working,” she told the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission’s board of directors during a video conference call on Tuesday.


She said she was hopeful that when jobless reports for the current period come out in a couple of months, they will show the local unemployment rate remained well below 10 percent.


Local employers appear to have benefitted from their experiences coping with the effects of the Great Recession after 2008, she said.


“We learned a lot from the recession in terms of saving and having Plan B’s,” she said.


Employers who have laid off workers, and those workers themselves, have been frustrated that the state unemployment system has been overloaded with claims, causing technical problems with the website for filing claims, but those are starting to improve, Johnson said.


In particular, on Monday the state fixed a problem that had prevented employers from filing “attached claims,” which is filing on behalf of all of their laid-off workers, she said.


But the unemployment system remains under strain from the volume of claims, and it will take time for the system to catch up, she said.


“We’re just telling people to file and work through the system,” she said.

4-9-2020 – Virus crisis sets new economic benchmark

Posted on: April 9th, 2020 by admin


April 9, 2020



By Guy Lucas

Apr 08, 2020 1:37 PM


Caldwell County’s economy was humming along in February, according to the last report on unemployment to show what conditions were before coronavirus-prevention measures began to hit businesses.


And while that report on local unemployment says nothing about the economy now, it probably will become the new benchmark to mark Caldwell County’s recovery after this crisis, said Deborah Murray, the executive director of the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission. Up until now, progress was measured against the numbers Caldwell experienced before and after the 2008 Great Recession, which made unemployment here spike to 17 percent in early 2010.


The county’s local unemployment rate dropped 0.4 percentage points to 3.6 percent from January to February, the N.C. Labor and Economic Analysis Division reported. Only 38 of the state’s 100 counties had a better month-to-month improvement, and the county’s improvement from February 2019 was 0.9 points, tied for best in the state.


“While the February employment report is no indicator of today’s employment picture, it is a strong indicator of the health of our economy at the time the coronavirus hit,” Murray said. “As we go forward we will be measuring two things: progress made or necessary to get us back to the February numbers, and progress past that point.”


Unemployment claims statewide have shot up in recent weeks because of business slowdowns or closures related to measures to try to slow the spread of COVID-19. From March 16 through Saturday, there were nearly 408,000 claims filed, with 87% of applicants citing the COVID-19 virus as the reason for their job loss, reduced wages or furlough.


“The March and April reports will begin to show the (economic) decline and will become the low points from which we will recover,” Murray said. “And for now we are all doing everything we can to ensure the decline is as short-lived as possible. Flattening the (virus infection) curve has set us back so we can battle the virus, but keeping it flat will allow us to recover.”


The state report giving county-by-county unemployment numbers for March, when the economy was hit by the first severe waves of coronavirus-related closings, is expected to come out in about a month.

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