01coverUAC032719001The Fayetteville Cumberland County Economic Development Corporation is a relatively new organization at just three years old. From partnerships to innovation to vision, this organization, along with its partners and the community, is bringing new ideas, development and dollars to Cumberland County and its municipalities. 

In 2018, FCEDC announced 750 new jobs from Campbell Soup Company and Booz Allen Hamilton, bringing $12.5 million in new investment to the community. Under its watch, downtown has seen more than $130 million in public and private investment, and a $37 million, 4,800-seat Astros A+ Minor League Stadium is nearing completion. The Fayetteville Regional Airport has seen $35 million in renovation, and a $12.6 million investment has delivered a state-of-the-art FAST Public Transportation Center, which operates seven days a week. 

Downtown is also now home to The CORE, an innovation corridor that connects talent, assets and resources and encourages innovation and entrepreneurship. These are just a few of the successes the FCEDC has played a part in. 

To hear Robert Van Geons tell it, these successes are all about teamwork, and this is just the beginning. Up & Coming Weekly recently interviewed Van Geons to hear more of his thoughts on the topic. 

Up & Coming Weekly: What is the Fayetteville Cumberland County Economic Development Corporation and why is it important? 

Robert Van Geons: We were established about three years ago. We’re a public-private partnership funded by the county, the city and the private sector, with the city and county being our biggest funders. We are a nonprofit, and our job is to help companies that are here grow and to attract new businesses to Cumberland County to create jobs and bring investment to our community. 

UCW: It seems like there are probably some challenges that come with that. 

Van Geons: We are a one-stop shop for economic development. We do everything from sites and buildings to marketing and promotion to existing industry support grants to incentives to working with the development community. 

This works because we have a lot of support from our elected leaders in the city and the county. We work well with the towns within the county, and the private sector has been incredibly supportive. … With their help, we’re starting to make some strides. 

At the end of the day, if this is successful, we are only a small part of it. It’s companies that make the investments. It’s the property owners that sell the land or the buildings. It’s the local officials that approve the incentives. It’s the citizens that show up to work. We’re the piece that tries to bring them all together. 

UCW: What do you think are some of the community’s strongest assets? 

Van Geons: Our people are our best asset. Additionally, we have a handful of really great attributes in this community. We have the youngest workforce in the Carolinas. We’re affordable as a place to do business and as a place to live. We are internationally diverse, with I think it’s 82 languages in our schools from 86 countries. 

And we are accessible. We are right along I-95. We have an airport and access to the Raleigh airport. We are near the deep-water ports in Wilmington. And we have both Class 1 rail providers and shortline rail in our community. 

It’s our people. It’s our location. It’s really the quality of our overall business environment. Those are our strengths. 

UCW: How have Fayetteville and Cumberland County grown in the last three to five years? 

Van Geons: We’ve had some recent announcements over the last few years and some exciting developments … but overall, I think we would be right to say that our community hasn’t grown as much or as quickly as we would like. 

And it’s something that we’re trying to build on the momentum of late. 

Recently, we’ve seen the Campbell’s Soup project in Cedar Creek, the $150 million-plus projects being built downtown, the completion of the work being done on I-295, the widening of I-95, the Booze Allen (Hamilton) announcements and more. So, we are building momentum. We’ve seen a lot of our vacant industrial space filled, and we have people looking to build new. 

However, we’ve seen relatively slow growth for the decade or so prior. 

Our towns are stepping up and investing in their communities as well — from Spring Lake to Hope Mills. We are working with Falcon and Godwin, and all the towns, on economic development efforts and strategies. That’s one thing our organization has as a priority — working collaboratively across all of Cumberland County. 

Just last week we had a meeting with representatives from all of the towns to talk about their individual economic development goals. We’ve been meeting with them individually since I arrived, and this was a time for us to bring them all together. We’re going to keep doing it every other month or so. 

And we’re doing some work around our airport, as well, and then looking at multi-modal transportation and development. There’s no single answer to being successful. It’s going to take the multi-dimensional approach. 

UCW: Do you think we will see some changes in the next five to 10 years? 

Van Geons: Absolutely, I do. I think we’re going to see continued to growth in technology fields, with companies like a ACLC and Worldwide Language Resources as examples, here in our downtown. 

Next-generation companies doing cyber security, virtual reality and distance learning are all going to be keys to that, and so we’re launching The CORE innovation center here. We’re seeing private sector developers, both locally and from well outside of our region, considering Cumberland County for new speculative development. 

The downtown project is transforming the way people think about our community. People are seeing and recognizing the economic potential and are starting to look at us with fresh eyes. We are hosting investors from Washington, D.C., and New York and Chicago and around the southeast frequently here. 

People are recognizing us as a great growth opportunity in a state that is growing. We don’t prosper alone in North Carolina. The momentum built by cities like Charlotte and Raleigh and Durham rubs off on us. We’re looking to leverage that. 

UCW: How do you get different businesses and organizations to work together for the greater good and a better future? 

Van Geons: When talking about where we were to where we are, have we always been as collaborative as we should be? Probably not — in the past. But it is a new time here, and the city and county are working well together on economic development. 

And now we’ve got, as an example, nine organiza

tions raising over a quarter-million dollars toward developing a communitywide brand that we all can use and benefit from. This is part of setting a joint vision for this community and working toward it as we look at what is our best tomorrow for our citizens and ask ourselves how we can effectively convey that internally and externally. 

I think we do look at that on the workforce development side. … How do we attract talent? How do we retain talent? And how do we grow talent? And that is where we’re looking at creative things around recognizing that technology and rapid innovation will be the two major drivers of tomorrow’s economy. And so we are looking at ways to increase broadband access and extend broadband here. We are looking at ways to bring, keep and grow innovative companies and to attract next-generation technology firms to our community. 

We have got to ensure that all of our children have access to tomorrow’s economy, which will be decided by their level of engagement with technology. 

You are either integrated into the digital economy or you will be left behind, and we’re working hard on that to make sure no one gets left behind. I think the one thing we know for certain is that tomorrow’s workplace will evolve exponentially more rapidly. … The No. 1 skill that the next generation worker will need will be the ability to continually learn and adapt to a changing world. 

We have another initiative going on with the workforce development board that I am co-chair of. It is a next-generation sector partnership. ... We’re working with … employers to identify their talent needs multiple years in advance, so that we can work to train up our people to fill those jobs well in advance of those vacancies getting here. 

Whether you are truck driving or you’re working with our utility providers, the graying of the workforce is real. And those are opportunities for our citizens today and tomorrow to have gainful employment versus recruiting new talent to fill that from outside. 

UCW: Thinking about the future sounds like a fun part of your job. 

Van Geons: I enjoy it. With SEGRA coming into town and PWC’s dark fiber and us launching The Core, which you can check out at www.corefayetteville.com, I am optimistic. I believe we need to be an innovation corridor. Sen. Kirk deViere and Rep. John Szoka have both supported this. 

Between what happens in the private sector and Fayetteville State University, Fayetteville Technical Community College, Fort Bragg and Methodist University, we have the potential to be a leader in applied innovation — from drones to cyber to robotics to game learning. We have all of those things happening here in our community today. 

We also need to tell our story better internally and externally, and that’s part of the branding initiative we are working on. 

UCW: How do you lay the groundwork for attracting new businesses? 

Van Geons: Before the end of the month, we will cross the 1,000-job mark and around $65 million dollars in total investment through our projects since I’ve been here, which is 26 months. 

I think that’s a real positive start for us when you talk about results, but we can have exponentially more happening. And we want more. So, how do we do that? Part of it is having sites and buildings. … We work with the state and with industrial brokers around the southeast and promote our community at events and trade shows. 

We work with our existing industry to help them help us find out about customers or suppliers that would be interested in being here. 

UCW: What is your dream for Fayetteville and Cumberland County, and do you think we can pull it off? 

Van Geons: I believe we can be the community where all our citizens can build a better economic future for themselves and, more importantly, for the next generation. We can be a place where generational equity is built, meaning the next generation has a better tomorrow than we did — regardless of how they came to Fayetteville. 

UCW: What do you see as this community’s biggest challenge as far as economic development? 

Van Geons: I think we need to continue to push forward. One of the most transformative things we could do is to find ways to help those who have suffered from chronic unemployment to get back in the workforce. 

We are doing this with things like the expungement clinics and by developing and implementing training programs that are accessible and yield direct employment for people. We have employers looking for workers. We also have people looking for work — but when they don’t have the skills, the jobs go unfilled. 

We need to confront the issues we face. Whether it is the opioid crisis or children not succeeding in school, it is about helping build a path for people who have been chronically unemployed. That will change so much of our economic landscape. 

We need to continue to focus on economic development. And it will take years, not days. We need to have faith in our leadership. That’s a start. 

We are especially grateful for support we receive from the city, the county and our board. Anything good we are accomplishing is because of them and our private sector partners.

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