Former economic development leader’s legacy still grows
by Staff Writer
In 2006, former Lake Norman Regional Economic Development Corporation (LNREDC) CEO Mark Heath was named The Herald’s first Person of the Year. He was mortified.
“You guys should really reconsider,” he said at the time.
Not much has changed. When he was told in a recent phone interview that he would be the focus of a Herald 10th anniversary feature aimed at catching up with former newsmakers, Heath responded with an awkward silence, followed by a sigh.
“Must be a slow news week,” he finally said.
Heath isn’t a shy person, but he does prefer to do his work outside of the limelight. It was in fact his ability to operate behind the scenes that led to Heath being awarded that unwanted honor in 2006. After the towns of Cornelius, Davidson and Huntersville realized that diversifying their tax base through economic development was essential for their future prosperity, the towns created the LNREDC in 2003, hiring Heath as its first CEO. The investment paid off quickly, as the LNREDC played a role in bringing the Newell Rubbermaid headquarters to Huntersville the following year.
But Heath wanted the three towns to work as co-developers for an industrial business park to be located in Huntersville, on the 126-acre site of a newly closed nursing home. The towns would share the costs of development and subsequently share the tax revenue generated by the park that would one day be known as Commerce Station.
Pretty much everyone agreed it was a good idea, but hardly anyone thought he could pull it off, as it would entail convincing three town boards to simultaneously agree to spend a lot of money and relinquish a degree of control.
But then Prairie Packaging, a company that makes plastic cups and utensils, emerged as a potential anchor tenant to the industrial park. Heath went from trying to sell a vision to selling something much more tangible.
And he pulled it off. Prairie Packaging (which has since become a subsidiary of Pactiv) agreed in 2005 to build a manufacturing facility in what is now known as Commerce Station and began operating the following year, creating roughly 350 jobs. A second tenant, ABB, a Swiss energy company, is currently constructing a facility to manufacture high-voltage cable. The new facility is expected to open this fall, bringing 100 new jobs to the region.
For Heath, putting the Commerce Station deal together ended up being an emphatic exclamation point at the end of his career with the LNREDC. In 2006, he accepted a job as the CEO of the Martinsville (Va.) Henry County Economic Development Corporation, a position he continues to hold. He commuted from Huntersville for a year to allow his youngest son, Ben, to graduate from North Mecklenburg High School, then moved with his wife, Debbie, to Virginia in 2007.
Heath said his family still has strong ties to the area and visits frequently. His oldest son, Brad, remains in the Charlotte area and works in construction, installing granite countertops, and Debbie’s father lives in Lincoln County. His middle son, Matt, also a North Mecklenburg High graduate, is a Captain in the U.S. Army currently stationed Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where he is a Ranger School instructor. After starring in baseball at Penn State Ben was drafted by the Houston Astros. A catcher, Ben is now playing in the minors with the Lancaster Jethawks in the California League.