Land of opportunity

Land of opportunity

Looking out over his family farm, Dean Penny points out memories from his childhood. This is where he learned how to farm tobacco. Over there is where he ran into an electric fence as a kid and burned his legs. And next to that barn is where he plucked scuppernongs off the vine and ate them until he got sick.

The farm of his childhood will soon be gone. In November, the Clayton Town Council approved plans for the Copper District, a massive, 69-acre mixed-use project that will include retail shops, apartments, single-family homes and a hotel on the Penny Farm. Another major component is hundreds of thousands of square feet of Class A office space – a first for Johnston County. Construction is scheduled to start in the coming months. Dean Penny at this family land that will become Clayton’s Copper District. Penny is a member of the family that has owned the land for decades, and will have a key role in developing it. And he is also a part of Cary-based Craig Davis Properties, which is developing the Copper District.

“For me, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Penny said. “When do you ever get to have this opportunity with land that has been in your family? That opportunity doesn’t come along.”

Even though Penny’s sentimental ties to the land run deep, he knows Johnston County is rapidly changing, as it was the fastest-growing county in North Carolina during the 2010s .

“The reality is this is not going to stay a farm. Whether it’s in my lifetime or my kids’ lifetime, it’s not going to stay a farm. The land is too valuable for that,” Penny said. “Our desire is to see it developed in a very tasteful, high-quality way.” Chris Johnson is the Johnston County director of economic development. The project represents the next step in Johnston County’s evolution. The community that was focused on agriculture for decades began to boom about 30 years ago as improved roads better connected Wake and Johnston counties. The most apparent sign of growth, to the consternation of some local residents, were the rooftops popping up in areas where rows of tobacco once stood. As prices soared in Wake, homebuilders and homebuyers sought cheaper options in Johnston .

For the community’s next step, local leaders don’t want Clayton, Smithfield and Selma to simply be bedroom communities for Raleigh, Durham and Research Triangle Park. They want the area to be self-sustaining, and view projects such as the Copper District as a key cog in the county’s economic engine of the future – and a means to keep Johnston County residents in Johnston County.

“When I’m speaking to prospective clients considering our area they say, ‘Well, where do I get my workforce when you’re at 3.5 percent unemployment?,’” said Chris Johnson , director of the Johnston County Office of Economic Development. “I’m like, ‘Well, we’ve got 105,000 in our workforce but half leave the county every day. That’s where you’re going to get them from.’”

Interstate interest

For several decades in mid-20th century, growth was stagnant in Johnston County. Between 1940 and 1970, the county’s population actually decreased from about 63,800 to 61,700 people, according to U.S. Census figures.

The county really started to change in 1990, Johnson said, when I-40 opened. That’s also the same year Johnson – an eastern North Carolina native whose wife’s family is from Johnston County – moved to the county.

“A lot of developers and investors that were looking at the region saw Johnston County as low-hanging fruit,” he said.

If I-40 started the Johnston County boom, then the construction of several other interstates in and around the county will accelerate growth.

The stretch of U.S. Highway 70 from I-40 to Morehead City has been designated as future I-42. That stretch runs right through Johnston County, giving it another high-speed corridor to the coast.

Another major project is the completion of southern I-540 loop, which started in 2019. Johnson calls it one of the most important infrastructure developments for his county.

“Everything that I sell is the close proximity to Raleigh, the three major universities and the airport,” Johnson said. “When 540 gets opened up, we’re just going to be 15 minutes closer.”

And just last year, the U.S. Highway 421 corridor from Greensboro to Dunn was given high-priority status in the federal infrastructure bill, which bodes well for the road becoming I-685 one day and linking up Johnston County with megasites in Chatham County and the Triad.

All these future interstate projects will help Johnston County recruit companies. Even […]

source Land of opportunity

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