Asheville Citizen-Times: How trucking helped land high tech jet engine parts

By Dan Neal

Old Dominion has been trucking freight across the Southeast for more than 75 years, but this spring the company played a role in driving a new deal to bring more jobs and space-age technology to Asheville.

County manager Wanda Greene and assistant county manager Jon Creighton came calling on Old Dominion with an interesting proposition — How would you like to move?

The county offered a nice little property owned by the city of Asheville, and by the way, Buncombe could build Old Dominion a brand new facility.

The pitch was part of a complex deal Buncombe County officials were trying to broker in order to win a new factory that at least 12 different states were competing to land. Throughout the spring, elected officials had to keep mum about what was only called Project X. Buncombe County commissioners approved a $15 million land swap.

The mystery was finally solved last June when GE Aviation announced that Asheville would be the first place in the world to manufacture jet engine shrouds made from ceramic matrix composites.

This is a material developed by GE engineers that’s light but strong and heat-resistant, requiring special tools to even cut it. Think of the possibility of building a jet engine from a space-age plastic.

Old Dominion’s old freight terminal off Sweeten Creek Road came crashing down, or at least a symbolic corner of the building, during the official groundbreaking in November for the new GE Aviation plant, which will be built on the trucking company’s old property.

David Gantt, chairman of the county commissioners, was finally able to tell the public what officials couldn’t at first reveal, having been sworn to secrecy during the negotiations with GE Aviation.

Gantt congratulated Old Dominion as a good corporate citizen, agreeing to the move and helping another company expand in Western North Carolina.

In hindsight, everyone calls the deal a triple-win. Taxpayers would likely see a return on the real estate and construction deal with both Old Dominion and GE Aviation paying annual leases as well as property taxes that will boost the tax base.

But all this space-age technology probably wouldn’t be coming to Asheville without the participation of an old-fashioned industry like trucking, which remains big business in the 21st century.

About Old Dominion

A Tar Heel company, Old Dominion is headquartered in Thomasville, employing some 14,500 workers. The Asheville terminal with its 33 workers is one of eight within the state, and among 225 service centers nationwide.

In October, the company quietly moved into a new Asheville service center with 43 doors on Hendersonville Road, situated closer to the crucial crossroads of both Interstate 40 and Interstate 26.

Charles Price for one was glad to see his company could help out. The manager of the Asheville center, Price thought a move closer to the interstate would be good for their business. And he’s glad to see GE Aviation bringing more manufacturing to the area.

“Old Dominion has witnessed considerable growth during its 16 years in Asheville, and this larger, modern facility will allow us to better accommodate customers new and old alike,” Price said. “The extra space will also allow for future growth in the region.”

Old Dominion rigs haul just about anything and everything you can think of into and out of that Asheville terminal, Price explained — from manufactured parts to food to clothing to whatever. About 50 trucks file in and out of the terminal each day, and locally-based drivers haul loads 200 and 300 miles in a single day south to Atlanta or east to Greensboro.

He expects even more hauling business for the trucking company as the new inland port opens up in Greer, S.C. Containers shipped by rail from the Port of Charleston will be relayed onto tractor-trailers in Greer and sent around the Southeast.

Those long lines of trucks lumbering up the slow lanes from Old Fort, or flying down the Saluda grade, aren’t just trying to tie up tourist traffic. They’re bringing home what stocks our stores or shipping out what our factories have made.

Making jet engine parts in Asheville is a definite plus, but a more mundane transportation with big trucks like Old Dominion remains an important mainstay of our economy.