Signs of Steady Growth

October 13, 2021 | Written by: sanford-user

By Bob Joyce, Senior Director, Business Retention and Expansion


The North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation (NCFREE) is a Raleigh-based research organization that provides non-partisan analysis of the political landscape in NC and its impact on our state’s business environment. This group works to enhance awareness of the value of a free enterprise system; promoting a positive view of open and competitive markets.

Recently, NCFREE measured all North Carolina counties in three categories: Annual Employee Payroll, Total Establishments (number of businesses), and Average Employee Count. Their report tabulated the changes from 2012 to 2018 using U.S. Census data. The results show good growth and recovery for Lee County since the Great Recession, which supposedly ended in 2009 but negatively impacted our local economy well into 2011-12.

Nine counties in North Carolina experienced Annual Payroll Growth of at least 100%. The top county was Rowan with an impressive increase of 246% over those six years, due primarily to Daimler Trucks. The other eight (in order) were: Swain, Northampton, Davidson, Wilkes, Gates, Caswell, Mitchell and Person.

Lee County’s Annual Payroll Growth was 36% – still very impressive considering our out-sized industrial base. We ranked 63rd out of 100 counties in this measure. While that sounds like a low ranking, remember that our large manufacturing labor force is already paid a wage premium compared to the rest of the private sector (estimated by EPI data to be about 13% nationally) so, a 36% increase on an already-large number is great…and it definitely shows up in our local economy.

Out of the 17 industries measured, Lee County payrolls grew in 12 of them, including strong showings in construction and utilities.

In the Total Establishments category, Lee County also shows up well. Since 2012, we’ve had a 12% increase in the total number of businesses in our community. That places us 16th out of 100 counties. Johnston was number one with a 24% increase, followed by Brunswick, Union, Cabarrus and Pender. Our neighbors in Chatham, Harnett and Moore also finished in the top 20, which tells me our entire region is a great place for entrepreneurs.

The Average Employee Count data shows an 8% increase for Lee County. That puts us 75th out of 100. The explanation here is similar to the one for payroll growth. When you already have a big number, the percentage increase may be small, but the effect is large. Our county has 10 employers with over 300 employees, five are over 500 and two are well over 1000 employees. So, an eight percent increase in the average employee count per business is pretty good. The number one county in this category is Tyrrell – which as all North Carolinians know is THE smallest county in the state by population with only 3250 people.

Business professor and economist Dr. Aaron Levinson once said, “Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”

These data points suggest that Lee County’s economy has performed very well since 2012 in the categories that were studied. Our steady increase in retail sales tax collections bears this out.

Interestingly, the study end-point is 2018 – the last year for which data was available. That was before any of our large announcements – Pfizer’s $500 million expansion and the new industry announcements for Bharat Forge, Audentes or Abzena. So, what is “concealed” in this study is what the future holds for Lee County. Our view is that growth in these numbers for Sanford and Lee County will accelerate dramatically over the next six years!