Triad the transportation hub: How did we get here, where are we going?

(WGHP) — How did we get here?

Over the last couple months, there have been two major economic developments in the Triad, with a pair of companies announcing they’re coming to the area, and the promise of thousands of new jobs and more than a billion dollars in investments. 

While both made headlines – with Toyota saying it’s coming to the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite, and Boom Supersonic choosing Piedmont Triad International Airport – neither would have been possible without the work of an unknown amount of people behind the scenes. 

Including some of the companies which have called the Triad home for much – if not all – of their existence. 

“What we’re seeing is we’re becoming one of the epicenters for transportation technology just in general,” said Brent Christensen, Greensboro Chamber of Commerce president & CEO. 

In 1916 in High Point, Perley A. Thomas found himself unemployed. He capitalized, creating Thomas-built streetcars, which were soon found in some of the largest cities in the country. In 1936, encompassed by the rise of cars and buses, Thomas decided to shift to buses of his own: school buses.

“High Point’s always had a rich history in terms of manufacturing,” said Kevin Bangston, Thomas Built Buses president & CEO.  

About 40 years ago, the Volvo Group moved to Greensboro, later acquiring Mack Trucks. 

“We needed to have something where we had an airport and good school system and a strong sense of community,” said Martin Weissburg, chairman of Volvo Group North America and Mack Trucks president.  

In recent years, both companies started shifting to green transportation: zero-emission, battery-powered vehicles.  

“With Mack, we have very aggressive sustainability goals, and this is really our first step towards those goals, and it’s certainly not going to be the last,” said Mack Trucks E-mobility Senior Project Manager Scott Barraclough, while standing in front of the company’s LR Electric refuse vehicle. 

Volvo also recently started designing, manufacturing, selling and servicing a fully electric heavy-duty truck. You can see FOX8’s Neill McNeill’s ride inside one of them with Volvo Trucks North America President Peter Voorhoeve here.

“As a leader in industry, globally, we’re always on the cutting edge of having cleaner burning diesel-burning engines anyway,” Weissburg explained. “Not just out of regulations, but it’s the right thing to do, and it’s good for business.” 

Thomas Built is also steering in the electric vehicle direction, with the creation of its Jouley electric school bus. 

“You’ve got a bus that starts and ends the day in the same place, and quite often goes back during the middle of the day,” Bangston added. “So, from that standpoint, charging and recharging really is a good fit for that duty cycle.” 

When Boom representatives first visited the Triad, Christensen recalls them flying out without one important view. As he remembers, there was little time to meet, so they were unable to visit any of Greensboro’s amenities. In turn, they had no sense of the community. 

That was short lived. 

“The theme of the visit was the power of three,” he said, of Boom’s next trip to the Triad. “Not only do you have a downtown, but you’ve got three of them.” 

Christensen admits when he first took on the role as the president and CEO at the Greensboro Chamber, he’d heard horror stories of the three Triad cities failing to work together. 

“I haven’t seen that in those six-and-a-half years,” he said. “I’ve seen a Triad that’s anxious and eager to work together to achieve big things like we’ve achieved, and we’ll continue to achieve.” 

In addition to a grasp of the group, Boom also got a sense of how quickly it would be able to get going at PTI. 

“That’s part of the reason we landed Boom…every time they came back, there was still equipment. They had made progress. It wasn’t like we went out there and rented equipment for their visit, and two days later it was gone,” Christensen said. “Two months later they came, and the equipment’s still there, and look at all the progress we’ve made. We’re serious about this, and we will have your site ready and prepared and get you up and running quicker than any of our competition can.” 

The same went for Toyota and the Megasite, Christensen added. 

“When opportunity comes, it’s too late to prepare,” Christen said, channeling legendary basketball coach John Wooden. “We’ve been preparing for these types of wins for almost a decade now.” 

Where are we going?

Now area leaders have their sights set on fulfilling a promise: training the people needed for the thousands of positions about to be created.  

“We’ve hired over 100 folks for our factory operation over the course of the last four or five weeks,” Bangston said. “We’ve got plans to hire more.” 

Volvo also continues to hire, with more than 120 open positions in the technology and engineering area, Weissburg said. 

“Of our 3,000 employees, over a thousand of those are in the technology sector,” he explained. “In high-tech, electric mobility, autonomous vehicles, vehicle engineering, lots of engineers.”  

Toyota and Boom intend to initially hire about 1,750 people.  

“We’re going to need a lot of space to go build those airplanes. The world’s going need a lot of them,” said Blake Scholl, Boom Supersonic founder & CEO. “And that’s one of the things that’s great about this site: there’s plenty of room to expand as the business continues to grow.” 

Christensen believes Boom and Toyota are just the beginning. 

“I think what you’ll start to see is a cluster that’s built around that,” he said. “It may not be 1,700 jobs and a billion dollars of investment, but they may come 50, 100.”  

Christensen also points to some companies continuing to grow while remaining somewhat under-the-radar – including Soelect Inc. – another battery-related operation and its $11 million in recent investments.  

“That has been organically grown here,” he said. “You’ll see more of those either organically grown or coming that won’t necessarily make the huge headlines that Toyota and Boom have made, but it just speaks volumes to this community.”  

All of these companies are looking at the Triad’s colleges and universities as imperative to their operations.  

“The bottom line is we’ve done it before, number one, that’s always the best proof is the fact that we’ve done it before,” said Nicolas Yale, aviation programs director at Guilford Technical Community College. 

Yale elaborated on his meetings with companies investigating the Triad as a potential home. 

“We show them everything we offer right now, which is very extensive, and we say, ‘OK, we can pick pieces out of all of that and build you the program you need or we can build a totally new one,’” he said. 

Yale says GTCC is currently hovering near the providing line the transportation industry currently needs, so it’s going to double the size of its programs to meet the needs of Boom and the companies to follow. The next five years will be spent designing and constructing a new building at the college’s Cameron campus. 

“The key is trying to figure out exactly what we’re going to need to have in there to be ready for the future,” he said. 

The Triad is well below the number of available homes it needs to meet demand, according to North Carolina Realtors. Now, developers are battling shortages and inflation while pushing projects. 

“You’re seeing more apartments, more homes, more housing options coming out of the ground on a regular basis,” Christensen said. 

Bottom line, with the addition of new green transportation companies, paired with the transition to electric on behalf of some Triad staples, there is a glaring requirement.

Its leaders, cities, companies and communities must work together. Perhaps more now than ever before. 

“The recruiting process is exciting,” Christensen said. “It’s nerve-racking. It’s great when you get the ‘yes,’ but now it’s time to perform.” 

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