Lee County: A Look Back to Start the New Year

SANFORD, NC - Though the struggling economy received most of the attention last year, there actually were some signs for optimism mixed in with the gloom and doom.

First of all, some perspective.

Nobody's arguing the basic facts - that unemployment is too high and sluggish growth has left some companies scrambling to stay afloat. Add to that a good helping of election-year rhetoric, and there's no mystery why so many people are frustrated.

On the other hand, data suggest things aren't as bad as they've been before.

That hotly-debated unemployment number (11.2 for October and 12.1 for November) is down from the 14.6 percent posted one year ago and the misery index, an economic gauge combining the national unemployment (9.8) and inflation (1.14) rates, stands at 10.94 - just half of the 21.98 posted in June of 1980.

And there's been a lot of good news coming from local employers, including some expansions that haven't yet worked their way into the employment statistics.

The most recent examples?

Coty announced a $12 million expansion in last month that is currently adding eight production lines and 140 new jobs to make fingernail polish.

Magneti Marelli followed that announcement a couple weeks later with one its own. The company is adding high-tech equipment and 65 jobs by the end of this year to produce three new fuel systems for Chrysler cars.

But those were just the latest.

In the last year, yarn producer Parkdale America returned to Sanford after having left the area entirely. Frontier Spinning Mills, another yarn company, added $15.5 million in high-tech equipment and about 45 new jobs.

There's more. Caterpillar began its much-publicized, four-year expansion, expected to create 325 jobs - an announcement so big that it attracted the governor to Sanford. And Static Control continued along its path to add hundreds of jobs.

Other economic signs are looking up, too, with Lee County enjoying a big jump in taxable sales during the year and the number of industrial expansion or relocation projects inquiring about Lee County growing as well.

Being part of the Research Triangle region should continue to make Lee County an attractive business location for years to come.

Speaking to about 100 community leaders during the annual Health of Lee County assessment in Sanford, Research Triangle Regional Partnership President and CEO Charles Hayes noted that the region is now the world's top vaccine producer and among the global leaders in cloud computing, where people can share software, data and other resources across the Internet.

Nobody in our nation does the innovative things we're doing right here, he says.

That's good news because recent statistics show the number of manufacturing jobs remained roughly steady last year, and those are jobs that pay more than other segments.

Manufacturing jobs pay an average of $43,804 per year in the county, well above the overall average of $36,192 and far above the pay for jobs in service ($31,917), government ($37,111) and retail trade ($24,326).

In fact, Lee's overall average wage, which grew slightly last year, is more than the surrounding counties of Harnett, Chatham, Moore and Johnston.

If you do work here, you make more money than any anybody around you, Hayes said. So, that's a good thing.

Education: Another Surprise

Better-than-expected economic news wasn't the only surprise. So was education.

To be fair, not everything improved this year. Only seven of Lee's 15 public schools, for example, achieved adequate yearly progress in an annual report issued by the State Board of Education. That figure was down from 11 last year.

But most typical measures of educational quality either improved or held steady.

Among them: the number of schools making expected or high growth in the statewide ABCs report (13 of 14, no change), SAT scores (up 10 points to 1000, though that's still eight points shy of the state average) and the graduation rate (up 2.3 points to 73 percent).

Other education news:

* Lee County Schools expanded its laptop initiative, which installs Wi-Fi in schools and provides a computer to students in grade three and up.

* The school system also announced The Head of Class Project, which will award $50,000 annually to the faculty and staff of the best performing elementary school. The incentive is the first of its kind in North Carolina and could be considered as a model for the nation.

* Lee Early College - which allows students to complete high school and a two-year community college degree in five years for free - honored its first seven graduates.

* Project PK-14, being coordinated by top community leaders and the United Way, kicked off an effort to enhance education for all students.

* Central Carolina Community College ranked 49th nationally among community colleges in Washington Monthly's 2010 College Guide, an annual publication ranking the best liberal arts colleges, national universities, baccalaureate colleges and community colleges.

* CCCC also exceeded all eight state-mandated performance standards and received rave reviews for its Chinese cultural arts series offered through the Confucius Classroom.

Quick Notes from

The HEALTH of LEE COUNTY 2010 report

* The proportion of Lee County residents with at least some college rose from 48.7 to 53.1 percent since last year, an important improvement since education is critical for success in a high-tech economy. Higher percentages also hold associate degrees and bachelor degrees or higher.

* Crime rates continued to fall - this year, from 3,640 to 3,393 incidents per 100,000 inhabitants. That number has dropped every year since hitting a high of 7,201 in 2002.

* Central Carolina Hospital has enhanced its facility and improved in several measure of patient care. The hospital also has seen a surge in outpatient surgeries and the use of other services, and it recently received recognition for its quality care from outside groups.