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The Charlotte Economy's Well Kept Secret

Truck driver Mike Cox align=left

A newcomer to Charlotte is usually quick to learn just what a big deal the banking industry is here. But we don't hear much about another segment of the local economy. WFAE's Scott Graf reports now on the well kept secret that is Charlotte's shipping and warehousing industry. It's 6 AM on a Tuesday. Mike Cox is standing in the yard of shipping company Bridge Terminal Transport (BTT) in west Charlotte. Cox is once again ready to hit the road. About four hours later, Cox pulls into the Port of Charleston. He's dropping off a container of electronics made in Conover. They're headed for South Africa. He's also picking up a container that was shipped in from China. About five hours later Cox unloads at a Bernhardt warehouse in Lenoir. Bernhardt officials say the furniture Cox just dropped off could now be hauled all the way to Vancouver. For Cox, his day ends after about 500 miles of hauling once he gets back to the BTT yard in Charlotte. Hans Stig Moller is the head of BTT. "Our trucking division alone will in any given year, move approximately 25,000 containers in and out of the Charlotte area," he says. BTT is owned by the Danish shipping giant Maersk. Technically, Maersk's North American headquarters are in New Jersey. But its operation in Charlotte is nearly twice as big, employing about 800 people. That's a significant operation, sure. But according to Jeff Edge with the Charlotte Chamber, it represents just a fraction of all the trucking and warehousing jobs in the Charlotte region. "We're probably over 48,000 people that are employed in the logistics and transportation industry," he says. "The banking industry is something less than 40,000." Edge says only the health care industry employs more people in Charlotte than shipping and logistics. More than 300 trucking companies have a presence in Charlotte. Some of the nation's largest retailers occupy huge tracts of warehouse space in and around Charlotte. So what's the appeal of setting up shop here? Well for one, Charlotte is relatively close to the ports in Charleston, Wilmington and Savannah. So it's quick and easy to get imported goods to a warehouse. The region's interstate system then makes it easy to ship those products on to a huge customer base. "We're relatively midway between New York, Miami and basically equidistant to the Chicago area, the St. Louis area and the New Orleans area," Edge points out. "Probably over 65 percent of the US population is in that geographic zone." In the Southeast, the trucking and warehousing sectors in Atlanta, Memphis and Nashville are all larger than Charlotte's. But Charlotte's industry has grown after the state changed tax code in the 1980s so that the contents of warehouses weren't subject to property taxes. Since then, the industry has grown so much, Mecklenburg County is just about run out of room. Now, the industry is spilling over into other counties. Barry Matherly proudly shows off the Lincoln County Industrial Park next to Highway 321. He's in charge of economic development in Lincoln County. A smorgasboard of products get shipped out of here: things like organic tortilla chips, licorice, catalytic converters and road construction machines. "Currently we've got 16 facilities, over 3.5 million square feet out here," Matherly says. "There's about 2500-plus people that work here. And the tax values of the buildings is about $300 million." Matherly says leaders in Lincoln County turned their attention to warehouse jobs about 10 years ago. . . when furniture and textile workers were losing their jobs. "We quickly decided that a good alternative and a place that they could go to work very quickly was in distribution and logistics operations," Matherly recalls. "That's because a lot of them were already doing that inside a manufacturing facility and could move directly into this occupation. Others were at least exposed to it and with some training could move right in." No one we spoke with thinks Charlotte will become known as a shipping and warehousing city any time soon. But Moller, of the trucking company BTT, says the industry is poised for immediate growth. He says the only thing holding it back is a shortage of truck drivers. And how many sectors in Charlotte can say right now they have more jobs than workers?