Retired MSC director Dan St. Louis joins his former MSC staff and distinguished guests in front of bulldozers grading land for the new facility.

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Sam Buff, vice president and general manager of the MTIN, addresses the audience.

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Robin Phillips-Hauser, director of business development at CVCC, and Tanya Wade, entrepreneur intake administer at the MSC

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Retired MSC director Dan St. Louis joins his former MSC staff and distinguished guests in front of bulldozers grading land for the new facility.

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New MSC PPE-NC Initiative to serve as prototyping, testing, commercialization center for medical textiles

Posted May 6, 2021


By Devin Steele


CONOVER, N.C. – If a groundbreaking ceremony for a 45,000-square foot facility at the Manufacturing Solutions Center (MSC) here on April 30 is any indication, the U.S. textile industry is emerging from COVID-19 in grand style, at least in this region of Western North Carolina foothills.


Catawba Valley Community College (CVCC) and the City of Conover hosted the event, attended by more than 100 people at the Norman B. Coley Amphitheater, to officially launch a solution for a problem that reared its head during the pandemic – the shortage of and need for development of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). In addition to the two-story, state-of-the-art facility being built to house MSC’s incubator clients, the Manufacturing Solutions Center PPE-NC Initiative includes a renovation of CVCC’s current MSC facility on the property, the purchase of PPE testing equipment and two clean rooms.


As the pandemic created the need for a platform to source, produce and certify PPE, the North Carolina General Assembly allotted $9 million (part of CARES Act funds) to Conover to build a facility at MSC to prototype, test and commercialize PPE for U.S. manufacturers. The PPE testing equipment purchase was made possible by both a $500,000 N.C. Community College grant and a North Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NCMEP) grant.


In total, the project is a public-private partnership between the City of Conover, the State of North Carolina, the CVCC and private-sector partner Ingram Walters and his team, the latter of which provided $4 million in funding.


The first floor of the new facility will house MSC’s structural engineering along with a fabric formation lab. The second floor will house the PPE/Textile Resource Lab along with conference and meeting rooms to support economic development.


“MSC was tasked early on in the pandemic to assist businesses in prototyping and testing textile products for PPE, even though they had no prior experience,” said Lee E. Moritz Jr., mayor of Conover. “The MSC team quickly learned and worked around the clock during the throes of the early pandemic. COVID-19 revealed the U.S. supply chain for PPE was at extreme deficit.


“At that time, 97% of all PPE was made in China and the Far East,” he continued. “It's no secret the U.S. did not have the necessary supply of PPE to react to this national crisis. We saw many companies immediately step up and transform their production lines to make PPE. However, the certifications for medical PPE are much more specific than their current line, which was apparel furniture, upholstery and other sewn products.”


Moritz added that the majority of the fabrics produced in the U.S. are manufactured with a 200-mile radius of Conover, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will release new PPE testing and certification requirements.


“So this new facility will be ready to support companies with prototyping, new products, training employees on new machines, testing product and allowing U.S. companies to take products to market in record time,” he said.


Such an endeavor would not have been possible without the leadership of Dan St. Louis, several speakers said. His forward-thinking leadership led to the development of The Hosiery Technology Center through CVCC in 1990 and, in 2009 as the country was struggling to recover from the Great Recession, he and his staff engineered the creation of the MSC, an achievement with a lasting impact on Catawba County and beyond. St. Louis led the centers for 30 years before retiring last June.


Sitting on the front row, St. Louis was called to the stage by Dr. Garrett Hinshaw, president of CVCC, and presented the highest honor in North Carolina, the Order of the Long Leaf Pine. (Read related story.)


During the event, Jodi Geis, who was recently appointed the MSC director to succeed St. Louis, asked her staff to stand and be recognized.


“These people are the heart and soul of the MSC,” she said. “I learned early in my career to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are, and these folks are amazing. MSC, you got out of your comfort zone during the pandemic and you had to pivot, shift and change just like you have time and time again. You've always answered the call of the customer. This is what makes us special. This is what makes us successful. This is what keeps us relevant. And this is what separates us from others.”


CVCC President Hinshaw echoed Geis’ sentiments: “There's something special about this center and the people who work here. And there's something special about the future of what we're going to create. And with the partnership of the City of Conover, we moved into a huge facility, and then we outgrew it. And today we're celebrating that growth and that future growth that we'll experience as a result of Dan St. Louis's leadership.”


The MSC is closely allied with the Textile Technology Center (TTC) at Gaston College, and for years the two centers have closely collaborated to meet customers’ needs. In December, the Manufacturing and Textile Innovation Network (MTIN) was created to officially bind the MSC and the TTC as partners to serve companies in the U.S. and globally. Sam Buff, previously director of the TTC, was named vice president and general manager of the MTIN.


“This new and exciting network serves as another economic development resource for his community, our region, the state of North Carolina and beyond,” Buff told the audience. “I would find it challenging to remember how long this idea has been batted around in some shape or form. What I can tell you is that it takes leaders with vision to pull off something like this. And it's been an honor and privilege to work with so many leaders on this project, many of whom are gathered here today.”


N.C. House Rep. Jay Adams was instrumental in procuring the funds for this endeavor, although initially they were earmarked primarily for the manufacture of PPE. But the concept evolved through numerous discussions, he said.


“Today, we may be setting into motion a manufacturing cluster that simply doesn't exist right now,” Rep. Adams told attendees. “That means jobs – not just for us, not just in Conover and Catawba County. It means in North Carolina. And it gives us that strategic advantage, that important capability, so if we ever have another pandemic to deal with PPE – because China was holding back on us and we had no cards to play in that negotiation – we're going to be ready. I believe that what this future facility will do is create PPE that we can’t even imagine right now.”


Rep. Adams announced that he would donate to the MSC a small loupe that his father, who was in the furniture business, had used years ago to magnify and study fabrics.


“We're all blessed to be here,” he said. “This is a very, very unique part of this country and this state. I don't think this could have happened anywhere else like it's happened here.”


Walters, an entrepreneur and businessman who owns or operates companies that are focused in the Buy Here, Pay Here (BHPH) industry and real estate development, said he was convinced to invest in this venture when he met St. Louis and MSC Special Projects Director Tony Whitener.


“I'm so passionate about manufacturing, but here's the interesting part – I don't know anything about manufacturing,” said Walters, who is known for his sense of humor and has served as a featured speaker at various national conventions and charitable and political events. (Yes, he had the audience in stitches with a few side-splitters.) “I know very little about supply chain, but I know this country was stronger when we were manufacturing a lot, and this country will be stronger when we manufacture a lot again. And I can say, without fair contradiction, that I think we're less vulnerable as a country when we manufacture a lot.”


He continued: “When I met Dan and Tony and heard their passion for what they do, I didn’t need to know anything about manufacturing. I didn’t need to know anything about supply chain. I can recognize passion when I see it. And those guys had passion – and I'm not talking about normal passion – I'm talking about PASSION, like a little kid. And when a grown man can have that kind of passion for something that he's doing, that's special, and these guys are special. I want to thank you, because without you, without your passion, without your spirit that is enough to fill the grand Canyon, this would never be possible. I don't have a lot of talent, but I can recognize talent and I can recognize passion. And you guys sure have it.”


Mayor Moritz said the MSC is nationally known as one of the most successful manufacturing incubator spaces in the country.


“Several much larger cities have tried to emulate this business model, with little success,” he said. “Trying to replicate a partnership in a small town and local community college would prove difficult for most. So what's the difference? Conover invested in CVCC's MSC success and, at the time, quite frankly, failure was not an option. We had to grasp an opportunity to restart American manufacturing innovation and put our citizens back to work.”

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