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Economic development for Chatham’s future

By Larry Hicks
Posted Friday, January 19, 2007

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Chatham County, NC - Last December, the UNC Center for Competitive Economies presented an economic opportunity ‘SWOT’ analysis of Chatham County. This oft-used assessment tool provides a baseline assessment of the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats facing Chatham as it begins to establish a pro-active approach to attracting quality business to the County. In the words of the presenters, SWOT is the first step in creating an objective shared reference point for stakeholders as we move forward with the joint development of an economic vision plan.

For those who worked on the development of the now adopted Strategic Plan, and the adopted Land Conservation and Development Plan, and those who have been paying attention to the County’s current growth discussions, this assessment will seem oddly familiar.

Strengths - Positive characteristics, internally focused

· Good business climate with relatively low property taxes

· Residents have high median household income (6th) and per capita personal income (5th).

· Well-educated resident population (unfortunately, much of this workforce commutes elsewhere to work!)

· Strong community college presence, including small business/worker training support programs.

· An excellent transportation network with easy access to the Triad and RTP regions and two major airports

· Land in Chatham is less expensive than in the core counties of the Triad or RTP

· Designated economic development areas and industrial parks

Weaknesses - Negative characteristics, internally focused


· Manufacturing employment has remained stagnant since 1990, yet it continues to be the largest private sector employment.

· Chatham’s employment concentrations are highest in the lowest paying sectors.

· Wage rates in Chatham are lower than the region and lower than the state average across most industry sectors. The wage disparity is large in some sectors.

· Planned areas for economic development are not served or are underserved by water and sewer infrastructure. This may limit the type of and location of future businesses

· Planned residential developments may strain infrastructure capacity


· Highest share of residents commuting outside of the county for employment within the region and the longest commute times in the region

· Commuters to regional counties earn considerably higher wages across a variety of business sectors

· This high commuting rate is detrimental to existing Chatham retail businesses and to the local government tax base.

· Chatham has the lowest retail sales per capita in the region.

· Chatham “leaked” approximately 55% of its proportional retail sales to other NC counties.

Opportunities - Positive characteristics, externally focused

Retail sales:

· Chatham is underserved by retail development. Chatham has the opportunity to be selective is its retail economy.

· Improving Chatham’s retail economy will increase the tax base to serve Chatham’s growing population

· The 55% leakage in retail sales accounts for approximately $550 million is lost local sales and $12 million in local option sales tax revenue collections.


· Chatham’s high level of commuting disguises the untapped workforce for higher wage companies.

· Chatham has both well-educated professionals and highly-skilled workers.

· This breadth of workforce will enable a diverse Chatham economy.

Immediate economic development opportunities:

· Expansion of existing firms - identify and serve existing firms seeking to expand

· Capture of RTP/Triad technology start-up companies - identify expanding firms seeking location of production facilities

· Tourism - utilize Chatham’s heritage and natural resources to build a stronger tourism economy

Threats - Negative characteristics, externally focused

· Residential development without economic development threatens Chatham’s quality of life. Residential tax base alone does not pay for itself.

· Current economy too concentrated in low-wage, declining sectors. Low-wage, low-skill employees are susceptible to economic downturns and lack competitive job skills.

· Lack of consensus on economic development priorities. This limits Chatham’s ability to develop and pursue a comprehensive economic development strategy

This is a good start, but only a start. There is much to accomplish, and it will take the energy of all of us. As with the multitudes of County assessments over the past 30 years, however, this preliminary assessment will have little impact if not incorporated into pro-active measures. I am hopeful that the entire County begins to take the long view … that of balanced growth which weighs the advantages of a strong economic plan, predicated on a strong educational system, infrastructure, and a community that recognizes and cherishes its heritage and character while seeking businesses that add to the County’s quality of life and opportunity.

Economic development for Chatham’s future

Related info:
Chatham Strategic Plan

Chatham Land Conservation and Development Plan