Catawba County’s effort to reinvent itself as a high-tech manufacturing hub is coming into focus.
Driving into Hickory off U.S. 321 North, a new public art sculpture of two giant leaves marks the entrance to the city — a first hint Hickory is turning over a new leaf.
Downtown shops are bustling and the square is full of people on a bright Saturday afternoon. A family pushes a stroller and walks a little dog as they pass a light blue construction sign that reads: Future City Walk.
This 5.2-mile stretch, patterned after Little Sugar Creek in Charlotte, will eventually connect the campus of Lenoir-Rhyne University to downtown Hickory (phase one) and continue along Old Lenoir Road (phase two) to the Lake Hickory Riverfront (phase three) where visitors will find shopping, dining, a bridge walkway over the water and public access to the water.
Scott Millar, president of the Catawba County Economic Development Corp., says construction should start this summer. Work has begun on relocating utilities and water lines along Main Avenue.
It’s one of the city’s large infrastructure projects to increase the livability of Hickory and attract new businesses. And it’s working.
“In the past several years, there’s been an uptick in the business buzz in Hickory,” says City Manager Warren Wood.
In addition to recent expansions by longtime Hickory businesses such as Corning Optical Communications, a new company is coming to town — Isotopen Technologien München AG, headquartered in Germany. The radiopharmaceutical company chose Catawba County for its first U.S. manufacturing facility.
“The [Hickory] area is planning for and embracing expansion, which will help attract talent and keep adding to the quality of life that is key to recruiting and retaining a skilled workforce,” a company representative says.
The city’s hope is for other companies to follow and for residents, both old and new, to enjoy lifestyle and economic improvements.
In 1961, Hickory boasted 46 furniture plants, 89 hosiery mills and 27 other factories, according to From Tavern to Town: An Architectural History of Hickory, North Carolina.
But in the last 20 years, Catawba County towns have struggled as two recessions hit, and many companies took their production overseas.
“Back in 1993 when I started with the city,” Wood says, “about 50% of all employment in the Hickory metro area was manufacturing. Today, it’s about 25%.”
That’s because between 2000 and 2013, 45,000 jobs were lost. “We were hit about as hard as anybody,” says Wood.
Eateries, shops and offices are moving into restored factory spaces such as Hollar Mill.
Now, in the buildings that once housed mills, townspeople shop, eat and drink, attend festivals, and buy local food at the popular Famer’s Market in Union Square, the city’s central business district.
“The Hickory people are a resilient kind,” says Catawba County Chamber of Commerce President Lindsay Keisler.
In 2010, with a public plan called “Inspiring Spaces,” city officials began to take steps to reinvent themselves and reinvigorate the economy. The plan outlined the city’s goals: Investing in improvements to the livability of the area, upgrading office and industrial space to attract businesses, and improving educational opportunities for the workforce.
Today, as these visions are coming to fruition, Hickory and neighboring towns in Catawba County are well positioned for growth, led by advanced manufacturing technologies.
“In 2014, Hickory voters approved a $40 million bond referendum to create a variety of amenities that would allow us to attract and retain a workforce. Since then, we secured another $50 million toward those goals,” Wood says.
The potential development around the greenway could, by 2035, result in about $500 million in private investment, 8,000 jobs created, 1,750 new housing units and a jump in population of 3,500, says Assistant to the City Manager Yaidee Fox, citing a study the city commissioned.
The Riverwalk, another portion of the Hickory Trail initiative, will offer more shopping, dining and recreational amenities at Lake Hickory, as well as residential development and connections to other future amenities.