Editorial: Revived rail connector in Rocky Mount boosts rural eastern N.C. economy

May 3, 2019

CBC Editorial: Friday, May 3, 2019; Editorial #8417 The following is the opinion of Capitol Broadcasting Company

It was phoenix-like -- last week’s announcement and groundbreaking for the intermodal Carolina Connector rail hub on the Nash-Edgecombe County boarder in Rocky Mount. It is important good news for eastern North Carolina that isn’t simply creating jobs but an asset to attract even more growth to the region.

Three years ago it could have been written off -- another promising economic development opportunity that crashed and burned. Instead, the hub shines. Why not giving a good idea up for dead and learning from the past creates opportunities for the future?

Almost exactly three years ago, the project to build the CSX rail hub in Johnston County was doomed amid local bickering and complaints of heavy-handedness from railroad and state officials.

As the dust settled from that disappointment, the Carolinas Gateway Partnership, a public-private industrial recruitment agency focused on Nash and Edgecombe counties, saw opportunity. The partnership’s new leader Norris Tolson recognized that, like they say about politics, all economic development really is local.

The partnership connected with state and CSX officials. Tolson convinced the railroad to let the local partnership handle talking with local property owners and securing the necessary option to meet the project needs. They met “around kitchen tables” to talk, neighbor-to-neighbor, about the need for the land and the potential that could come if they would be able to make it available. Even as those talks were going on, a potential set back emerged. New leadership at the railroad announced a reassessment of all infrastructure projects and hub strategy.

Despite all that, after about four months, Carolinas Gateway had 717 acres under option for the project. After even more months of review and assessment by CSX, came the announcement that construction on the Carolina Connector would, in fact, commence. Norris unflinchingly describes it as a “game-changer” for the region.

When completed in 2020, it will be able to handle moving cargo from 110,000 container cars a year – with the ability to grow to handle 220,000 cars annually. It will be a critical transportation link for current, expanding and new commerce in the eastern part of the state.

“People see the added value of having infrastructure to accommodate logistics,” Norris said. Critical highway and rail connections will enhance the positions for current manufacturers like Triangle Tire to bring in raw materials and ship out the manufactured products. Triangle Tire alone is expected to deal with 700 to 1,000 containers a month.

Additionally, the agriculture economy will find shipping products domestically and overseas more efficient. Edgecombe, Nash, Wilson and Johnston counties account for nearly half of the state’s nation-leading sweet potato production.

The connector will not just enable farmers to get their produce more easily distributed around the nation but gain more direct access to the port in Norfolk and more efficient access to major markets in Europe and Asia. It opens opportunities for food processing operations that didn’t exist before.

Three years ago, the economic development establishment saw the Carolina Connector at a dead end.

Today that project rises – with three huge cranes -- from fields of Nash and Edgecombe counties. It is strong foundation as well as a platform to expand and diversify the region’s job opportunities and economy.

NOTE: Capitol Broadcasting Company is developer of Rocky Mount Mills, a multi-use residential, business and commercial site in Nash County.