ST. PAULS, N.C. Greg Cummings has seen the Robeson County economy at perhaps its worst. Crippled by trade agreements that led to thousands of jobs heading out of the country and scores of buildings vacated, he said the county and its rural towns were among the hardest hit in the state, if not the entire country.”This has been very personal to me,” said Cummings, Robeson County’s longtime economic director. “I was born and raised here and I’ve had some sleepless nights over this.”The 2010 U.S. Census found that 33.1 percent of the 134,000-plus people in the county lived in poverty, the after effects of a decade of lost jobs.”If you look at the total picture of Robeson County from 1996 up until really 2005, 2006, we lost over 8,000 jobs due to the textile industry moving to China and Mexico,” Cummings said.Closing in on retirement, Cummings can sleep easy knowing Robeson County is getting a boost from incoming Sanderson Farms.The nation’s third-largest poultry producer is building a chicken processing facility in St. Pauls and hatchery in Lumberton that will bring 1,100 jobs and a nearly $140 million commitment to a region gasping for jobs. It is set to open at the beginning of 2017.St. Pauls town manager J.R. Steigerwald said the arrival of Sanderson Farms will “in one fell swoop” replace jobs lost when Carolina Mills closed plants in the early 2000s it had bought from Burlington Mills just a few years before.Getting Sanderson Farms to come to the region took private property owners, local and county government, and state and federal entities teaming together. On top of providing a location for the St. Pauls plant and assurances the community could provide the needed workforce, the collaborative effort needed to supply water, sewer and natural gas suitable for industry. Combine that with the incentives Robeson County was willing to offer neighboring Cumberland County was reluctant to sweeten the pot and Sanderson Farms found a home for its new plant.The Sanderson Farms jobs coming to the region which should impact five counties and beyond will pay above median industrial rates and include Sanderson Farms paying 75 percent of health benefits and providing a retirement plan.Cummings called Sanderson Farms “a friendly corporate citizen,” mentioning the company’s plans to further their commitment to the United Way. The company states on its website that $370,000 of the more $1.1 million in charitable donations it made in 2015 went back into the communities in which it operates via the United Way.Cummings said meetings and negotiations with Sanderson Farms made it clear the company was about more than just profits.”When they come in, they’re coming in to be part of that community,” Cummings said.Steigerwald said the addition of Sanderson Farms which also has a plant in Kinston where employees already hired for the St. Pauls facility are being trained adds to a corridor of food processing companies making North Carolina home.”These jobs aren’t going overseas,” Steigerwald said, comparing it to lost textile jobs. “Americans eat a lot of this food.”The trickle-down effect of Sanderson Farms should add more jobs in trucking and other related industries, and it could lead to more housing development in St. Pauls, Steigerwald said. He said it could provide St. Pauls with a 40 percent increase in its existing tax base, and Cummings added it could help “in a way where taxes decrease.”Cummings said that seemed like an impossibility years ago when people in struggling towns would ask him when the local economy would turn around. With his time as Robeson County’s economic director winding down, Cummings is just happy he’ll be leaving his position with the county in better shape than he found it.”When I see people getting jobs I see them in the Wal-Mart and they tell me they got a job that’s all the thanks I need,” he said.
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