Thomas celebrates one-year anniversary at GTP
The North Carolina Global TransPark was designed to become a major economic center of Eastern North Carolina. With easy access to rail facilities, extended runways and the expansion of local highways, it was expected to become ENC's version of Raleigh’s Triangle Research Park.
In June 2017, Allen Thomas took over as the executive director of the NCGTP. Previously, he had been a three-term mayor of Greenville, where he helped to secure funding for many of the highway projects occurring in and around the city.
With a year under his belt, Thomas reflected on his accomplishments at the GTP. One thing about Thomas becomes very clear: He is filled with passion for what the GTP can bring all of ENC.
“It has been 12 months with new administration here at the Transpark," he said. "Amanda Conner came on board with me as our business development specialist. And that was one of the major things we wanted to do here at GTP. We wanted to create at least a five-year stability plan. There has been 11 directors here and there was a constant turnover of top staff. You can’t make relationships with people or companies that way."
He said he and his staff began to focus their strategy and created a viable action plan, along with increasing global connectivity and building a progressive market plan while doing it all with accountable action steps.
He also changed and enhanced the website to make it more marketable to potential clients.
"We aren’t selling just us," he explained. "We are selling Eastern Carolina."
Thomas said the GTP went through an extensive process to determine what the long-term goals would be with a lot of stakeholders in and around Lenoir County. He also cited a "glowing response" from the North Carolina legislature.
"They extended the supplemental funding to expand the infrastructure," he said.
The GTP is more than just an airport sitting alongside of the Harvey Parkway as it employs 1,400 workers in 12 different companies. Eleven administration staff oversee the operations of the facility as a whole. All of the workers reside in 20 different counties across ENC and there are many different relationships that exist from the GTP throughout the state and beyond.
“I had no idea of the scale and potential of this place when I first came on board," Thomas said. "It is a tremendous facility with lots of potential. That’s why all of the people who work here are so dedicated because they see the vision of what we hope to accomplish here."
Thomas said after a year on the job, there are still questions he wants to answer.
"How can we market North Carolind to the world?" he asked. "How can we be a conduit and a gate to all of North America and into the world? Many people around the world don’t even know where North Carolina is. It’s our job to help promote our community to everyone."
Thomas has some tangible goals for the immediate future.
“I’m getting ready to do a hometown tour to every city and county in our region and promote our asset and how can we make them more competitive in the global marketplace," he said. "With all the assets we have here, we can make it so that our local farmers can sell sweet potatoes in Japan or manufacturers can sell their products in Europe.”
The GTP sits on a very large parcel of land in Lenoir County as 2,500 acres of land has already been dedicated as a multimodal park. Another 5,800 acres is “shovel-ready” to be built upon, depending on a potential client’s needs. Almost six miles of rail spurs connect to the CSX and Norfolk Southern rail lines. The park has a runway that is 11,500 feet long, the second longest in the nation.
It is also a designated Foreign Trade Zone. This means foreign companies can import and store products until it is complete without being taxed on it initially. It also allows for easier restrictions on customs. All of this is contingent on the work being done is by local people.
Currently, the two biggest tenants are Spirit Aerosystems, a division of Boeing, and Mountain Air Cargo, which repairs airliners.
So, what made the past year different with Thomas at the helm than previous administrators?
“We got a mandate from state legislature as a catalyst to help jump-start the economy for all of Eastern North Carolina," he said. "It is a long-term strategic marketing strategy with a strong proactive online presence to help grow other businesses around here. We took that mandate and ran with it. We had to get a clear understanding of what we’re working with in this region."
He continued, "We had to look at what resources we have and how can we grow it. We spent the first part of last year doing a forensic analysis of the assets we have in the region and how we can maximize it. But the goal wasn’t to look at what is good for Kinston in 2018. We wanted to look beyond that to 2020, 2030, 2050 and beyond.”
Thomas said the GTP is also important to the military.
“We are a backup site for Seymour Johnson and Cherry Point," he said. "We’ve had an entire squadron sitting on our runway. We are an Air Force One training site. We had 10,000 Marines practicing drills where they have to take an inland area with off-shore resources last week. This demonstrates the scale of what we can deliver to aerospace and tech companies. We’ve had 112 flights of the Antonov this past year. That’s the second largest plane in the world and it has been carrying airplane parts from here to France where Aerobus is assembling the jets."
Part of the strength of the GTP is the accessibility of it to the world. Besides the runway and the rail lines, the GTP is within two hours of all of the major military installations within North Carolina, which allows for a lot of synergy with those bases. And if you look around, there are a lot of new highways going up around the area. Within 10 years, new interstate-grade roads will connect Kinston directly with Raleigh, Greenville, New Bern, Morehead City and Norfolk, Va.
Basically, they are creating an interstate loop from the Inner Banks into the interior of the state.
“We’re not just roads, but technology too," Thomas said. "The state is running fiber lines down I-95 and and Route 70 all the way down to Morehead City. This is going to be a major technological hub and we are going to be right in the middle of it."
One of the benefits to having the GTP in the area is as the park expands, there will be a demand for good paying jobs in the aerospace industry. Wages for people at the GTP are, on average, 29 percent higher than the rest of Lenoir County and 34 percent higher than ENC. As a result, they are trying to encourage younger people to stay here. A job fair-manufacturing day in October will show high school students in five counties the potential jobs in the GTP.
“I’m proud of being able to communicate the vision of what this place can be," Thomas said. "Spirit has invested $55.7 million into Lenoir County. They are making a long term bet with what we are doing here. We’ve had $73 million pumped into this area in the last year. That is the most money invested here since this park was born."
Along with international vision, the GTP also is important locally. It is an emergency response hub for the region. In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, where 1,000 first responders used the park as a command center, the state now operates an emergency response headquarters here. Thomas said this shows the versatility of the park.
Marketing the area is key, he said.
“We are in competition with a lot of other areas," Thomas said. "How do we stack up to other major air corridors in Miami, L.A., New York? It’s the prospect of our capacity to what others have as well as a lack of congestion that the major cities have. That’s important in this new e-commerce era."
Thomas said planning remains key.
"We are not interested in having static plans; we have a living, dynamic action plan with 114 separate items with measureable steps and time frames that we can adjust to meet our needs. If you want site selection companies to take you seriously, you have to have great support."
He cited other facts, including the state resurfacing all 11,500 feet of the runway and the GTP receiving its 404 environmental permit.
"We can tell companies we are shovel-ready," Thomas said. "We are ahead of the game in doing the pre-work for them to move in. We can compete with everyone in the world."