Like some of his contemporaries with other organizations, Burke Development Inc. President and CEO Alan Wood acknowledges Burke County has a housing problem.

Taylor Dellinger, a data analyst with the Western Piedmont Council of Governments’ Planning and Transportation Department, and Loralie Clark, a realtor and the president of the Burke County Board of Realtors, told The News Herald last week that Burke County has a housing shortage, especially in the median price range. Wood echoed some of those sentiments, focusing on housing that could attract skilled workers and young working families.

“It’s not really a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer,” Wood said. “You look at the data and there are houses available, but are they what people want and are they in the right locations? You see houses for sale and yet, they sit on the market, some of them, for long periods of time. In other places, they’re turning really, really fast.

“I think what the answer is is that there is a shortage in specific types of housing that may be appealing to people we want to attract here and younger families who want to stay here. There’s very little high-density housing available — apartments or town homes. When they are, it seems like the desire for those is very high. What that does, if we don’t address it, is it can have an impact on what we’re trying to do for the future.”

That future includes an expansion and plan for new jobs announced by Continental in April. Morganton City Council voted in May after a public hearing to enter into an economic development incentive grant agreement with the company and Burke County. According to the city, the state is poised to make large contributions to the project, including a building reuse grant and a job development incentive grant. The city says it and the county also will make appropriations in the form of economic development incentives.

Continental plans on a new capital investment in structures and equipment of at least $41 million and the creation of 135 new full-time jobs, the city said. These jobs are expected to pay wages greater than the Burke County average, according to information from the city.

Wood said he doesn’t think the workers will look for other employment if such good jobs are available in the county, but depending on housing, they may have to live outside the county.

“That will diminish the impact that a possible (expansion would have),” Wood said. “To get the full impact on a company, we need the workers living here and shopping here because you get that trickle-down effect on what it does for the rest of the economy. To be the most impactful, we need to keep those folks in our community by shopping, et cetera, et cetera.”

New educators hopeful for homes

Another organization that could be impacted by a local housing pinch is the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, which plans to open a western campus in Morganton in 2021. The school will employ around 100 faculty members and Kevin Baxter, the planning director for the western campus, said he is concerned about housing for those folks and their families. In fact, Baxter, a newcomer to the area, still is looking to buy a house in Burke County himself.

“It’s one of primary talking points when I’m out and about in Burke County and the surrounding communities because this is really an opportunity for Burke County to make sure we try to land as many of these faculty and staff members here in our local community as possible. There will be options. Certainly, folks are not required to live in Morganton if they’re employed by the school, myself withstanding that policy. I’m the only one with that requirement.

“At our Durham campus, folks drive as much as an hour to get to work from all different communities around the Triangle. If you apply that out here, that’s very different because of traffic patterns, community distances and so on. If we do not have the inventory here in Burke County for those faculty and staff, as well as Continental’s expansion, Blue Ridge HealthCare, and so on — if we can’t accommodate these new members of the workforce coming into town, they will be forced to look in neighboring municipalities and counties and we’ll be losing that opportunity to retain those folks here locally.”

Baxter said while faculty members living outside the community in which the school is located wouldn’t necessarily affect school operations, it does have the potential to diminish the affinity for and relationship with the community for those members. He said while 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. workers can get detached from the community, that’s not the relationship NCSSM wants its employees to have with the community. If those employees live outside the community, it puts limitations on that relationship, Baxter said.

Housing a hot topic at upcoming summit

A forum for questions about the local housing situation will be held in the form of a summit on Aug. 30 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Foothills Higher Education Center in Morganton. BDI will be one of the hosts of that event.

“It’s to address the (housing) situation or at least start talking about it,” Wood said. “We have a meeting planned that will be facilitated by a person from the North Carolina Department of Commerce to do a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis and present information as far as the data we can put our hands on.

“We don’t expect to solve an issue or solve a problem, but maybe we can identify what the next steps are. We can leave there that day with four to five action items and we can find people who are like mind and able and willing to start to address some of those issues.”

Baxter expressed enthusiasm about the housing summit and noted he has had discussions with Wood since the project’s origins. As a prospective homeowner and an organizational leader, he wants to be highly involved. He said NCSSM is engaged in the discussion and he will lead a session at the summit on invitation from BDI. Like Wood, Baxter noted that the summit is more about questions than designating immediate solutions, noting it’s not a “silver bullet.”

“It’s a first step and it’s a critical first step,” Baxter said. “But we can’t look at it as the solution. It’s simply a strategy we should use as a jumping-off point to keep this discussion at the forefront of our community leaders’ minds.

“The key here is going to be trying to attract a developer into this community in Burke County that really has eyes on the future of Burke County and the opportunities that not just the school will yield, but the re-imagined Broughton Hospital campus will yield and the Continental expansion will yield. … I want to make sure we are on the radar of national developers to seize this opportunity and present options for folks coming into this region.”

Wood said he thinks there currently are shortages locally in disciplines like plumbing, contracting and electrical work that will be needed further down the road. He said it’s all part of recovering from the last recession and what it did to the housing market. He still thinks that economic downturn is having an impact on the local housing situation.

Wood noted that BDI and local agencies don’t have the answers to the problem yet. The summit will be about asking the right questions. He said the event’s organizers aren’t going into the summit thinking they’re experts but instead want to find a way to fill a hole.

“We’re trying to get the right people in the room to identify if there is a problem, what the problem is, what the challenges are and how we can start to address those to ensure that Burke County and its communities can grow and thrive for the future,” Wood said.”

Justin Epley can be reached at jepley@morganton.com or 828-432-8943.

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