BACK TO ITS ROOTS: Ayden turns to its agriculture background to create local jobs.

Author:Blake, Kathy

The town of Ayden, 11 miles south of Greenville, is about 3 square miles with a population just above 5,000. It hosts an annual collards festival, has nearly a dozen churches near the center of town, and is promoted on its website as "a clean, safe and attractive community that encompasses characteristics of a village."

"But what our citizens want," Mayor Steve Tripp says, "is jobs for our community."

The potential solution--a food-commercialization center that has been in the works for six years--is rooted in Ayden's history. It all started when Tripp attended a meeting in Washington, D.C., with other town officials and visited the U.S. Economic Development Administration. "They said, 'Look at your resources and develop job creation with ... what's in your wheelhouse, what's the biggest asset that will drive the economy,'" he says. "Pitt County was the No. 1 producer of tobacco anywhere in the world, so it came back to agriculture."

This means a 24,000-square-foot food-commercialization center at the end of Levi Drive in Ayden's Worthington Industrial Park. Named the Eastern North Carolina Food Commercialization Center, it will operate as a nonprofit in partnership with the town of Ayden. An application was first sent to the EDA in 2013. The organization requires a local government be part of the application process.

The goal is to open the building in 2020, pending passage of the state budget. The building will be operated by the nonprofit and provide about 10 jobs initially, eventually growing to 25 employees on-site. Town Manager Steve Harrell says business analyses show the center could generate about 240 jobs, including farmers to grow increased amounts of product, local entrepreneurs to create and package products, and truckers for shipping.

The center will have a processing area for washing and sorting fresh fruits and vegetables, an area for packing and shipping, space for canning and bottling local products such as barbecue sauce and salsa, storage space, a flash freezer, and rentable space for entrepreneurs and companies that produce value-added products. The long-term goal is for produce originating in Ayden to be distributed statewide, nationally and beyond.

"I didn't realize until I got to Ayden that farmers did not have somewhere to send their produce to be packaged and distributed, or that some of the major players who need the products our farmers have were going out of state," Harrell says. "For instance, we have some...

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