Driving Sampson forward: Transportation annex, years-long endeavor, dedicated

Mar. 25—Close to two decades ago, there was a dream among local leaders of a place where people could learn how to quite literally take the wheel and drive this community forward. The trucking industry is at the heart of an agribusiness economy that serves as Sampson and surrounding counties' lifeblood, and they realized that future success hinged on having resources and talent, and a place to house and cultivate those respective needs.

Local leaders, through a partnership that depended on public and private entities and funding, slowly chipped away to garner the money to purchase property, develop it and add the tools necessary to construct a compound that was ultimately dedicated on Wednesday — the Sampson Community College's Transportation Annex. Sitting on a 42-acre expanse that serves as home to the college's truck driver training school, it is located deep within the Sampson Southeastern Business Center, also known as Clinton's Industrial Park.

During Wednesday's dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony, Chuck Spell, current president of the Clinton 100 Committee as well as a member of the Sampson Community College (SCC) Foundation Board and a former SCC trustee, shared some of the history of the site, and how its development began all those years ago.

"Nearly 20 years ago, local business leaders recognized the critical role transportation plays in the economy of eastern North Carolina," Spell stated. "They came together with the college to launch a training program that has evolved into what you see here today. This was no small task and it took a considerable amount of effort and collaboration from many different individuals. All of us from agricultural, manufacturing and distribution fully understand that transportation and the need for a program that provides qualified drivers is critical to our economy."

In 2006, with support from Ezzell Trucking, Prestage Farms and the Golden LEAF Foundation, the program started with just two donated trucks. Drivers trained on a site in Duplin County loaned to the college by Prestage Farms, Ag Provisions, LLC.

The program began to grow "in enrollment as well as in reputation," noted Spell, even as the demand for those drivers began to outpace the available workforce. Local leaders knew they had to increase the supply of CDL drivers to fulfill the market demand. At the same time, they were confronted with an Ag Provisions site in need of repairs and students who were losing valuable instruction time traveling, along with their instructions, to a training site a half an hour away.

A new site was needed — one that was closer to home.

In 2016, SCC Foundation executive director Lisa Turlington began to inquire with landowners about properties closer to the campus. Lisa's husband Bill Turlington, who served as Clinton 100 president when the property in the industrial park was purchased, suggested the site. Lisa called Spell to see whether that was an option.

"With very little persuasion, the Clinton 100 Committee board agreed in 2017 to donate 12 acres to the college to construct a 600-by-600 training pad and a classroom on the site," Spell recalled.

Support from the local business community bolstered the college in obtaining grants from the Cannon Foundation, Golden LEAF and those matching funds helped to get a $2.6 million EDA grant in 2020. A dozen companies "committed letters of support to add 551 jobs, save 267 jobs and add over $14 million in private investment," Spell pointed out.

The college was subsequently able to purchase the remaining 29 acres from the Clinton 100 Committee, which agreed to sell at the original purchase price — more than tripling the original size of the lot from 12 acres to the 42 it has now.

Continuing to expanding the first permanent residence of the trucking industry will allow one of the largest public commercial driver training schools in North Carolina to get that much larger. And there are no plans to stop that growth, as a $1.5 million allocation from the N.C. General Assembly will see a new 5,000-square-foot auxiliary building placed on the site.

"I can assure you this program is very important to many industries in Sampson County and the region," Spell told those gathered at the dedication, which included many key players in those industries. "It is very easy to understand that everything we use in our daily lives must be transported by the trucking industry. Transportation is critical to every business and especially to so many of the agribusinesses throughout our economy."

Dr. Bill Starling, president of SCC, pointed to the faces at Wednesday's dedication, many of which date back to the trucking endeavor's inception. He named Dr. Bill Aiken, former SCC president, who was at the ceremony along with the Ezzell family. He also gave credit to the late Bill Prestage, Steve Matthis, SCC's dean of Occupational Programs, and many others.

Dr. Starling recalled a donated trailer from Ezzell Trucking and the couple trucks from Prestage Farms all those years ago that breathed life into the fledgling endeavor.

"We would not be here today if it had not been for that," he attested. "We have not fumbled the vision over the 15 years. We stand here today as a part of, and a testament to, the work that occurred so long ago."

It is easy to look at the area and see the trucks, the lot, the building and start thinking about how much everything costs, the SCC president said (around $5 million, he noted). But, past the dollar signs, it is an investment into the local economy.

"See this really for what it is — this is an investment in Sampson County, in our businesses, in our people who need life-sustaining, family-sustaining jobs so that they can be a part of our community, sustain our businesses and improve the quality of life in Sampson County," said Dr. Starling.

In a time where words like inflation and recession are bandied about, local support in Sampson is crucial, now more than ever, the SCC leader implored.

"There are so many of us who are from here, and we are aware of the challenges that face our funding sources and so many of our public boards," he remarked. "There's an unfortunate realization that we all have to come to, and that is: the only way Sampson County is going to move itself forward is for it to find solutions within Sampson County that allow that to happen.

"This really is a testament to what can be accomplished with public and private initiatives."

"The SCC Transportation Annex is a wonderful expansion of the resources our college offers our county's residents and local employers," added Catherine Ezzell Joyner, president of Ezzell Trucking and SCC Board of Trustees member. "SCC has the ability to provide life-changing education in this world-class facility, and our county should be very proud. With the nation-wide demand for truck drivers at an all-time high, this facility will help strengthen our local economy."

Dr. Starling said there are so many names to credit. A college often does not go beyond the confines of its campus, so a task such as how to get a road constructed is not so simple, well outside of the purview of educating the masses.

From Bill Turlington, Chuck Spell, Michael Chestnutt and the entire Clinton 100 Committee board that "bought into the idea," to Clinton Planner Mary Rose and Clinton Mayor Lew Starling, "who saw zoning issues and funding issues ... and when we thought we might not be able to work this out, he worked it out for us, quietly and we appreciate it," said Dr. Starling. He also thanked architect John Farkas and Rivers Engineering "who found a way to put this parking lot on a mud puddle."

Additional partners included US Department of Commerce-Economic Development Administration, the NC General Assembly, Ezzell Trucking Inc., Prestage Farms, The Golden LEAF Foundation, The Cannon Foundation, and Clinton 100 Committee, as well as Hog Slat, McElroy, S&W Concrete, Goldsboro Milling, EPES Transport Systems, Schneider National, Sanderson Farms, Howard Transportation, Enviva, the City of Clinton, Sampson County Government, and NC Department of Transportation.

"We could not have done this without a collaboration," said Starling, who pointed to Ann Butler, who he said could relay stories from the earliest days of the program. "Some if it entertaining, some of it embarrassing, but we're still here and we're still proud to serve. To the trustees, who had an opportunity to say 'you want to spend how much money on a site on the other side of town to do what?' Thank you for your support and believing in the vision."

Collaboration was a word that was echoed by others.

"This project is truly a collaboration of public, private, and non-profit partners coming together to solve a labor shortage problem," Lisa Turlington stated. "Our industry leaders guided the initiative from the start through all phases, and the College and funding partners responded to the need. Federal, state, and local government agencies played vital roles of supporting the program that is one of the best in the state."

The SCC Truck Driver Training Program, now led by Kevin Randolph, is one of the largest in the North Carolina Community College System. Since the program's inception in 2007, 711 individuals have successfully completed the CDL course through SCC, and 573 students have gone on to pass the North Carolina CDL test through the Department of Motor Vehicles.

During the fall 2022 semester, the college saw 38 students enrolled in the truck driving class on what was then the new 12-acre driving training center in the Industrial Park. They were taught by four full-time faculty and a program director. Outside the classroom, over a dozen rigs emblazoned with the SCC logo were waiting to be used for training.

The expansion of the site is anticipated to bolster those numbers.

"This is probably the best example I know of a public-private partnership that seeks to move Sampson forward," Dr. Starling noted. "It is a testament that it can be done. Don't let it be the last one of these. This is not the conclusion of a project. We're just beginning here. Support the vision and let's make training opportunities for Sampson County residents available here."

Sampson Community College contributed to this story. Editor Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 2587.