RALEIGH – The possibility that Chatham County will be selected as the site for a new auto plant and battery manufacturing facility from VinFast with as many as 13,000 new jobs has reignited questions about whether all these projects – from tech to life science – pose a risk of overcrowding for the greater Triangle region.

“That’s the big challenge,” says economist Mike Walden.

“We live in an exciting time and an exciting region and state.  I see more innovations, new careers, and fabulous economic opportunities coming in the next decade than in any decade since I have been alive – and I was born in 1951!”

Dr. Walden, recently retired from N.C. State University, has heard the concerns about development expressed in the past. But he sees reasons why such projects can be absorbed and drive growth areas outside the Triangle’s core, thus alleviating some of the risk posed by more demand for housing and infrastructure.

In other words, the Triangle doesn’t necessarily have to become another Atlanta.

Mike Walden (NCSU photo)

Our Q&A:

  • How can officials work to prevent as Yogi Berra once said that restaurant is so crowded people don’t go there anymore? 

By working with the entire region and steering more development to peripheral counties – like Chatham, Lee, Franklin, Nash, [others].

  • How do we keep what has made the region such a drawing card over the last 60 years as the Park began to take root?

This is the big challenge.  I recall decades ago when the Triangle was beginning its growth spurt that many said, “we don’t want to become another Atlanta.”

I think it will become increasingly easier to push growth to surrounding counties that still have “space to grow.”

Of course, availability of reliable high-speed internet is an absolute necessity.  I believe universal availability of it will be achieved, likely by 2030.  Elon Musk’s Starlink project will be part of the solution.

  • Should North Carolina land this big EV complex in Chatham County and as many as 13,000 jobs how would it affect the entire Triangle region? Impact on housing, real estate, jobs (already very low unemployment)?

With the southern link of the outer beltline (I-540) being completed, locations in the less developed counties of the region, like Chatham and Lee, become more attractive, especially as real estate prices in the core Triangle counties (Wake, Durham, Orange) speculate.

Reports: Electric car maker considers Chatham County site for plant, 13,000 jobs

Developing residential communities in these lower-cost peripheral counties is also a way to keep housing costs more moderate.  Peripheral business and residential locations can also help attract workers from nearly rural counties where the economy is not as robust.

Still, most of these big business developments will also rely on attracting workers from outside the state.

  • Are we nearing a saturation point at which the region could draw too many jobs – beyond the capacity of housing, schools, infrastructure? Housing is already in short supply and prices/rents are soaring. And there’s still talk that a huge semiconductor plant could end up here.

The concerns about adverse impacts on infrastructure and housing costs is a reason why targeting large projects to peripheral counties is so important.  Pushing growth outward effectively increases the regional supply of land and locations and prevents even stronger competition for “prime” locations in the core counties of the Triangle.

Greater use of remote working and internet connections are helping make more remote locations viable.  (I have a new book – “Re-Launch” – that will be released tomorrow that discusses this.)

  • North Carolina has had a tremendous year-plus long winning streak of major economic projects across the board but especially in tech, life science and – most recently – auto- and aircraft-related technology. What’s happening here? NC lost out on so many big projects in the past – what’s changed?

COVID may have caused businesses to think more long-run.  North Carolina came through the Covid crisis about as good as any state.  Compared to other states, North Carolina was low on COVID deaths per capita as well as job losses per capita.  Plus, we have made a strong bounce-back, and individuals continued to move here.

So when a business looks at North Carolina as a location, they see a state with growth in its population and labor force, a “business-friendly” state, a state in the fast-growing South, a state with strong educational institutions, and a state with room to grow.

These features were here pre-COVID, but I think they have enhanced importance post-covid.  Plus, many economists are predicting a national “re-sorting”of population and economic activity in the post-Covid environment – moving away from states that fared relatively poorly during COVID (New York is a good example) to states that performed relatively better.

Again, North Carolina is in the “better” category.

  • When Apple and Amazon originally considered the Triangle for a new campus (ultimately awarded) and HQ2 (not a “win”) the media reported in detail what such projects meant for the region. How would a project this large now affect suburban/rural areas?

Besides the direct employment and payroll, it would certainly create “multiplier” (or “downstream”) impacts for the region, with double the total number of additional jobs and annual spending impact likely reaching over $1billion.

With the facility’s location outside of the “core” Triangle counties, more of the impact would occur in peripheral counties of the region.