Siler City analysis depicts fragile economy

Posted 11/26/20

SILER CITY — Siler City has a problem: the town has about 7,300 workers but only 5,000 jobs. And it gets worse. While the community is projected to grow by another 2,000 people over the next five …

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Siler City analysis depicts fragile economy

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SILER CITY — Siler City has a problem: the town has about 7,300 workers but only 5,000 jobs. And it gets worse. While the community is projected to grow by another 2,000 people over the next five years, the job market is not on pace to expand at a commensurate rate.

Fortunately, a team of experts from the N.C. Main Street & Rural Planning Center — a subset of the N.C. Dept. of Commerce — has launched a community economic recovery and resilience initiative in connection with an 11-person steering committee of town leaders including Siler City Commissioner Lewis Fadely, EDC Project Manager Sam Rauf and CAM site owner Tim Booras. Their goal is to evaluate Siler City’s economic trends and develop a five-year plan of corrective action.

The group was assembled months ago to address the town’s issues, but the COVID-19 pandemic set back its efforts. Last Friday, Ann Bass and Bruce Naegelen, MS&RP economic development planners, met with the steering committee for a virtual update to share their first set of major findings.

“Siler City, probably better than a lot of other communities, has known the boom and bust cycle,” Bass said. “You’ve had disasters. They haven’t necessarily been natural disasters or other pandemics, but when a chicken plant has closed or something, you’ve experienced what has happened within the community.”

The problem is a lack of economic diversity. Compared to the state, and even the county at large, Siler City represents a narrow spectrum of opportunity.

“(Town planner) Jack (Meadows) mentioned at a previous meeting that the county had been heralded by state economists for being very diverse and probably one of the more stable,” Bass said.

But Siler City doesn’t stack up. While 62% of Chatham County residents work white collar jobs, only 40% of Siler City does. And, while just 37% of N.C. has a high school diploma or less education, 57% of Siler City fits that category.

Despite those figures, a startling analysis revealed the severity of Siler City’s employment problem: the town’s jobs still require less education than the population has.

“We have about a third of our workers in Siler City that are underemployed,” Bass said. “We could be asking them to do more.”

Bass pointed out that data was not presented to disparage any type of employment. But the fact remains that typical Siler City jobs pay less than what workers can find elsewhere.

“With some of the disparities between the county and the town,” she said, “come disparities in average hourly earnings.”

Well represented industries in Siler City, including construction and food preparation services, range in average earnings from $9.97 to $17.99 per hour. Industries that are largely absent from Siler City pay $17.22 to $38.36 per hour.

Translated to annual income, the average Siler City household makes $55,089 compared to $110,056 county-wide and $78,915 across the state. Siler City also trails the county and state in housing value and home ownership.

To compound the town’s problem, much of its residents’ money is spent outside of Siler City. It’s a concept known as retail leakage — the more severe an area’s retail leakage, the less diverse and self-contained its local economy.

“One of our former colleagues is now working for an economic development agency on the coast,” Bass said, “and he has actually adopted closing the leakage gap as one of his primary economic development goals.”

That’s how big the difference can be for a local economy.

Between such industries as building, food and beverage stores, clothing stores, sporting goods and food services, Siler City leaks $118 million annually, a staggering figure.

The problem is likely two-fold, Bass said. The town does not have all the products and services its residents need, and its cost of living is higher than average.

“Our earnings are below average, our poverty rates are, sadly, above average,” Bass said, “and the cost of living is above average. It’s not by much, but that really kind of surprised me because I thought Siler City was a more affordable place to live … So, it means we need more money.”

Similarly, home ownership in Siler City is 10% below the state average and homes are valued at $60,000 less than average.

While the data depicts a troubling snapshot of Siler City’s economic health, it does not represent a complete perspective, nor the town’s prospects. New development is escalating under Town Planner Jack Meadows’ ambitious supervision and several new businesses are in the process of locating to Siler City.

Siler City is also the first community undergoing this rigorous state-sponsored investigation, and MS&RP are still in the early stages of data-collection.

“I hate to use the term guinea pig,” Naegelen said, describing Siler City’s role in the new program, “but test project.”

He and Bass expressed some dissatisfaction with the numbers they’d gathered and warned against drawing hard conclusions.

“This is just a draft,” Naegelen said. “A first go-around. And that’s why we’re presenting it, so that we can get comment of, ‘Well that doesn’t make any sense,’ or, ‘Why is that this way?’”

Some steering committee members were anxious to see how the analysis could be used to improve Siler City and its economy, but Naegelen emphasized that it’s too early for talk of action.

“That’s the $10 million question, really,” he said, “and that’s what we’re hoping to help with eventually.”

The committee will meet again on Jan. 7 to review and discuss a second version of the draft report before moving on to economic positioning strategies and implementation plan input in subsequent meetings. If all goes according to schedule, the group will present a proposal to the board of commissioners in March with its plans to address the town’s economic challenges.

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at and on Twitter @dldolder.


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