Guest blog post by Acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development Matt Erskine
Speaking last week  at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Secretary of Commerce John Bryson focused on the importance of manufacturing to boosting U.S. economic growth, job creation and exports. To see evidence of that, we need only look to the city of Conover, North Carolina, where Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) has been supporting elected officials and local private and public sector leaders—including a community college and a nonprofit manufacturing center—in their efforts to make this area a regional hub for advanced manufacturing expertise and to expand the region’s reach into international markets.
A $1.5 million EDA investment made in 2010 to the city of Conover and Catawba Valley Community College is helping build a new home at Conover Station  in Hickory, North Carolina, for the Manufacturing Solutions Center  (MSC) and its business incubator. The two establishments are already cultivating a new form of manufacturing, one based in smaller and smarter factories that nourish innovation. The new 30,000 square foot facility, which is being built on the premises of a former furniture manufacturing plant, will allow for the expansion of those efforts.The specific steps taken to rebuild this region’s economy were detailed recently by a group of six North Carolina civic leaders—representing the city of Conover; MSC; Catawba Valley Community College; and EntoGenetics, a manufacturer of high-tech fibers—when they met with EDA officials here in Washington, D.C. They discussed their region’s successful efforts to nurture new businesses, expand employment, and diversify the local economy.
At the center of the region’s efforts was the creation of MSC from a previously existing organization, the Hosiery Technology Center, and the establishment of a new business incubator, both of which are located in Hickory, North Carolina, and affiliated with Catawba Valley Community College.
MSC is a specialized research and consulting organization that has helped more than 300 U.S. manufacturers develop new products or improve existing ones in a wide variety of industries. These manufacturers range from large companies—such as Lee Industries, Nike, Hanes Brands, and HBF Furniture—to the smallest microenterprises. The center also conducts studies on products for client companies and helps develop prototypes for entrepreneurs.
The center has worked closely with its affiliated business incubator. “We want to create a system that creates new jobs,” noted Dan St. Louis, director of MSC. St. Louis detailed how civic, educational, and business groups came together to look at ways of repurposing empty manufacturing facilities that were left behind in the Conover area as businesses closed or moved. “We were determined to turn these liabilities into assets,” said St. Louis. “Partnerships were an indispensible part of that effort.”
In its efforts to help businesses in western North Carolina, MSC has benefitted from the help and expertise of another Commerce Department agency, the International Trade Administration (ITA). Between 2005 and 2008, with a $396,000 award from ITA’s Market Development Cooperator Program , MSC helped U.S. companies make more than $25 million in additional sales to foreign buyers.
Testimony to the MSC’s skill in aiding businesses, particularly startups that are commercializing scientific research, came from David Brigham, founder of EntoGenetics. The company is a manufacturer of high-tech textiles that use fibers spun by genetically engineered silkworms. MSC helped the company locate specialized manufacturers capable of handling the material and weaving it into finished products for both military and civilian clients. “Without MSC’s help,” remarked Brigham, “we might have been forced to look overseas to find a manufacturer. They made it possible for us to source this work here in the United States.”
President Obama and Secretary Bryson are committed to helping American businesses “build it here and sell it everywhere.” EDA’s investment in Conover, North Carolina, is a step toward achieving this goal.