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Johnston’s passionate promoter: Economic developer works to court new business

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SMITHFIELD — Johnston County Economic Development Director Chris Johnson said he’s passionate about recruiting industry to Johnston County and sharing what this region has to offer.

“I have a passion for bridging the gap over the urban and rural divide in eastern North Carolina,” said Johnson. “I want to help people see how economically fortunate we are compared to other parts of the state.”

A native of Jackson, a Northampton County town with a population of fewer than 700 souls, Johnson said he’s never lived farther than five miles west of Interstate 95.

He met his future wife Kim Gower at East Carolina University, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in industrial technology. They moved to Johnston County, where his wife’s family lives. In 1991, they opened Jewel’s Formals, a retail store specializing in formal, prom and pageant wear. The store is located at 101 S Third St, Smithfield.

Johnson said he he never planned a career in economic development.

“My dad was an educator and at one time I thought I’d become a high school coach,” said Johnson. “For me, the seasons of the year weren’t fall, winter, spring or summer. It was football, basketball and baseball seasons and the church league. I was born and raised in the locker room.”

Economic development was something he fell into, said Johnson.

“I fell into it,” said Johnson. “I’m a downtown small business and property owner and served to the Downtown Smithfield Development Corp.’s board of directors.”

When the executive director moved to Charlotte in 1999, Johnson was asked to step in as interim director.

“After a couple of months, I realized I really enjoyed doing this,” and Johnson. “The board made it a permanent, full-time position and I stayed there for 15 years.”

Johnson said he enjoyed every minute serving the town of Smithfield.

“I could relate to the other business and property owners because I had a stake in promoting a thriving Smithfield,” said Johnson. “I’d wake up each morning and walk four blocks to work. Serving in that role was easy because I had a passion and people saw that.”

Johnson said he had a good board in Smithfield who gave him the flexibility needed to be creative.

“We were able to transform the Ham and Yam Festival from a small-town festival to a regional event,” said Johnson. “We were able to bring in major talent like Eddie Money. We never looked at things like we couldn’t do it.”

Making the move from Smithfield to become Johnston County’s economic development director in September 2013 was a smooth transition, said Johnson.

“It’s all about relationships,” said Johnson. “From the small business owners to large industrial corporations, they all have payrolls to meet and in the end it’s the same.”

Johnson credits others with helping him achieve success.

“I’m the person that paints the picture, that finds the dots and connects them,” said Johnson. “That portrait couldn’t have been completed without the supplies provided by and support given by my staff and the business community of Johnston County.”

Johnson said his assistant Janel Parker is both his left and right arm.

“I go out into the field and Janel is the engine behind the scenes that keeps everything together,” said Johnson. “We also have great county leadership as well. Both make my job easier.”

When the economic development office moved to the Johnston Regional Airport four years ago, Johnson said he had mixed feelings.

“For 15 years, I could walk to work,” said Johnson. “If I needed to see the county manager, I just walked down the hall. Now, anything I do has to be planned.”

Today, he sees the airport location as a huge benefit.

“I didn’t realize how many companies were flying in and out of this airport to look at property,” said Johnson. “We have very professional conference rooms and the location is a win-win for everyone.”

The Johnsons have two grown children, Caroline and Quinton, both attending East Carolina University. Johnson serves on the university’s board of visitors. His children graduated from Neuse Charter School. Johnson said he’s stepping down from the board of trustees there after serving 15 years.

Johnson and his wife are active members of the First Baptist Church of Smithfield where he serves as what he describes as a Sunday school facilitator. Johnson said his class members include Johnston County Clerk of Court Michelle Creech Ball, Smithfield Town Councilman Emory Ashley and former Princeton High School Principal Kirk Denning.

Johnson said he enjoys traveling and physical activity. He said Ted Godwin, chairman of the Johnston County Board of Commissioners, got him into cycling.

“During the week, I’ll ride 25 to 30 miles each day and 50-60 miles on Saturdays,” said Johnson. “There’s great pleasure in cycling.”

Johnson said he’s having a full life and considers himself blessed.

“When what I’m doing stops being fun,” he said, “I’ll do something else.”