Henry County, Virginia, in partnership with Rockingham County, North Carolina, seeks rural RAISE 2021 funding for a $15.78 million roadway improvements project necessary to accommodate increased cargo and tractor trailer demands at the 726-acre Commonwealth Crossing Business Park (CCBC), an investment with significant regional and local impacts. The CCBC is a revenue-sharing facility located near the border of Virginia and North Carolina, was completed in 2019, and has already successfully secured an international manufacturing company, which delivered 212 jobs and $43.55 million in private investment. A Jan. 28, 2021, announcement heralded an additional 126 jobs and a $145 million private investment by a beverage container producer, Crown Holdings. From that point forward, the design team began working on an innovative solution that would address safety concerns caused by the projected increase in truck and car traffic from this newest manufacturer and anticipated future developments at this advanced manufacturing complex. The RAISE application reflects the scope and need for this important transportation upgrade located in rural North Carolina.
The proposed roadway improvements consist of a new grade-separated diamond interchange at the Martinsville Loop and US-220/I-73, replacing an at-grade signalized intersection. Acceleration and deceleration ramps will serve both US-220 northbound and southbound movements. A proposed two-lane bridge, approximately 150 feet in length, will span the existing US-220 four-lane divided highway facilitating overpass movement from Martinsville Loop to BUS-220. The proposed interchange will accommodate all currently projected traffic and will meet the capacity needs of the long-term CCBC buildout.
This intersection is located along the future I-73 corridor, a Strategic Transportation Corridor (STC) for the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT). Facilities in STCs are responsible for moving high volumes of people and freight across regions of the state. According to the NCDOT, STCs must function at high levels of service to provide for the State's economic well-being.
The proposed scope of the transportation project includes completion of all environmental permits and reviews, comprehensive detailed design and construction of the highway improvements including traffic control and safety upgrades, design and construction of stormwater management systems, and final construction management to provide quality control and assure timely completion of the project.
The proposed project is located in Rockingham County, North Carolina, at the intersection of U.S. 220/I-73 and U.S. 220-Business/Martinsville Loop. Improvements extend to the juncture of the U.S. 220-BUS/Martinsville Loop with Spencer Road/S.R. 692.
Situated less than a mile from the border of North Carolina and Virginia, expansion to an access ramp from the mainline (U.S. 220/I-73) to U.S.220-BUS extends 200 feet into Virginia. The Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre (CCBC), a key contributor to the economic impact of this project, sits to the north of the proposed roadway improvements. The actual formal entry to the CCBC is in North Carolina, off Spencer Road/S.R. 692).
The project sits in the center of critical roadway connections as well as adjacent to a major railroad route. The Norfolk Southern mainline between Roanoke, Virginia, and the Winston-Salem market runs directly adjacent to the CCBC.
Rockingham County, North Carolina, is situated in the central northern section of North Carolina at 573 square miles with just over 91,000 residents. Henry County is directly north of Rockingham County in Virginia and is smaller in both land mass (382 square miles with roughly 51,000 residents). All stats from 2019, U.S. Census Bureau.
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A Catalytic Project for Rural Economic Transition
The proposed RAISE investment will be transformative, working in tandem with the CCBC to encourage and spark activity that serve to restore this region to a new level of stability and overall economic status that we have not seen in decades. In order to appreciate the potential impact and significant value of these improvements to our communities, we look back in time to several waves of devastating fiscal and social disruption.
In spite of the state lines between them, Henry County and Rockingham County bear many similarities when considering the history of commerce and trade. Agricultural operations (tobacco, cotton, grains) of the 18th century gave way to textile production in the early 1800s. Furniture manufacturing became another essential employer, more so in Henry County than Rockingham, but the latter still fostered some smaller operations apart from the well-known furniture mecca of High Point in the county directly to the south.
Every reader will be familiar with the catastrophic implications on both localities as manufacturing operations moved offshore. Over a 10-year period, Henry County lost more than 17,000 manufacturing jobs due to offshoring in the 1990s. Rockingham County fared no better losing many thousands of positions in manufacturing.
As revenue evaporated and economic foundations folded, a plague of social challenges emerged. The area has been severely impacted by the opioid crisis and other drugs of abuse. In Henry County-Martinsville, overdose deaths far surpass other Virginia communities. The overall opioid prescription rate in 2016 was 399.9 per 100,000 residents in Martinsville, compared to 66.5 in the U.S. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2017a). Drug overdose mortality rate in Martinsville (56.7 per 100,000) is double the U.S. average (27.1) from the same period (2014-2018 according to the Overdose Mapping Tool created by NORC at the University of Chicago).
The consequences of the economic changes have been significant, but both localities have worked to overcome history to spark fiscal recovery as well as recovery from the damages of substance use disorder disabling a significant portion of the prospective workforce. Numerous community- and employment-based programs are in place to counter these impacts and help the workforce align with recruitment efforts. And while these measures must unroll deliberately and through coordinated initiatives, leadership has embraced multi-faceted campaigns to restore economic health.
One of the most successful fronts can be seen in the efforts by both Henry and Rockingham Counties to prepare for and recruit advanced manufacturing companies. In 2014, the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corporation (MHC EDC) completed a Target Industry Analysis. The goal of the assessment: “The purpose of this report is to present targeting methodology, along with the data and rationale for the recommended target industries. Industry intelligence for target industries is also provided to enhance understanding of the target industries as a means to support effective marketing and client interactions” (p. 1, Martinsville-Henry County Target Industry Analysis). The document aims to identify prospects that will diversify the regional economy with the goal of long-term sustainable growth.
A key component of the recommended strategy is to aim for recruitment of higher-paying employers. From p. 11 of the same study: “Across all industries in the Martinsville-Henry County (MHC) region, the average wage is $29,000. For manufacturing industries alone, the average wage is $39,000 in the MHC region. The first screen utilized annual average wages of $35,000 which would raise the region’s overall average wages. For the second screening, the wage screen increases to $40,000. The goal is to recruit new jobs that have higher earning potential in order to raise per capita income in the region.”
While this study was completed in 2014, it reinforces a goal identified by the regional leadership and put into action back in 2007. Development of the CCBC was made possible through coordinated planning and investments from a variety of partners and funding sources including: the Harvest Foundation, Henry County, Martinsville City, the MHC EDC, the Tobacco Commission, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, New Markets Tax Credits, the Small Business Administration, and Appalachian Power (AEP). Total local investments to date at CCBC have been $70.4 million.
A similar emphasis can be seen in the new comprehensive plan adopted by Rockingham County on May 17, 2021. The “Rockingham Vision 2040 Plan” summarizes five Emerging Themes and Guiding Principles on p. 38-39: Coordinated Growth, Economic Prosperity, Housing Variety, Enhanced Transportation & Mobility, and Natural Resource Conservation & Enhanced Public Access. A summary of Economic Prosperity reads: “Cultivate a diverse economy that encourages the growth of traditional industrial sectors while fostering new opportunities for small business growth and outdoor recreation and event-based tourism.” The Transportation & Mobility summary notes: “Coordinate highway corridor management with NCDOT to improve vehicular traffic flow and interconnectivity within the region.” The proposed interchange upgrade complements these two leading goals with a particular emphasis on well-planned improvements focused on efficiencies for the future.