Field of dreams?
The view from Alan Ferguson’s 50-acre property in northeast Randolph County takes in Appaloosas and llamas roaming lush green fields.
Other than the barely audible hum of the traffic from U.S. 421 about a mile away, the surroundings are enveloped by nature. Ferguson, a Greensboro attorney, and his wife, Nancy, have made their home on the land since 2006, thinking they had found an escape from urban development.
The Fergusons and their neighbors now are fighting what could drastically alter the landscape just across the rural road from where they live.
Economic development officials are working to assemble up to 2,000 acres to try to lure a major industrial user, such as an auto plant. Randolph County is using a $1.67 million state grant to acquire property within what has been dubbed the Greensboro-Liberty Megasite.
The prospect of landing a major manufacturer on the site has been described as a potential “game-changer” for the county and the region, which has shed tens of thousands of jobs over the past 15 years.
“I think the goal of the state in making the grant and our county in seeking and accepting the grant is to seek an entity that will create a large number of quality jobs and offer a multiplier effect, so that other supplier and service jobs would be created that would be associated with whoever is there,” said Bonnie Renfro, president of the Randolph County Economic Development Corp.
Supporters argue that an auto-assembly plant could employ as many as 2,000 people and draw thousands of additional parts-supplier jobs.
But the effort has brought strong opposition from residents near the megasite, which is bordered by U.S. 421 and a Norfolk Southern rail line, just south of the Guilford/Randolph County line.
Alan Ferguson, whose property is across Troy Smith Road from the megasite boundary, leads a grassroots organization called Northeast Randolph Property Owners, whose motto is “No Megasite Here.”
Ferguson said the vast majority of property owners whose parcels are within the target area are not interested in selling.
He said he’s aware of only two property owners with a combined 730 acres in the center of the site who have agreed to sell their land. There are about 60 parcels within the site’s footprint.
“I think the project is going to go away, because this neighborhood has really come together,” he said. “Before, it was a collection of people, and now it’s a community. And it’s pretty tight.”
Pros and cons
Ferguson and others with the group said real estate professionals started approaching landowners within the site footprint in late 2011 to gauge their interest in selling.
They have since learned that the inquiries were made on behalf of the Piedmont Triad Partnership, or PTP, a regional economic development organization based in Greensboro.
PTP President and CEO David Powell did not return a phone message.
Ferguson said property owners were asked to sign confidentiality agreements prior to learning what the purchase offers for their land would be.
It’s unclear exactly what led officials to target this area in particular, but it has several assets that could make it suitable for a large-scale industrial use. Besides the proximity to rail and a four-lane highway, a Duke Energy transmission line runs through the middle of the site.
Renfro said natural gas lines are not far away and that an engineering firm has studied the feasibility of Greensboro running water and sewer lines to the site.
Randolph County Commissioner Darrell Frye said he thinks the megasite concept has merit, but added that there are a lot of questions he wants answered before the county goes further with the idea.
There could be any number of roadblocks to deal with, especially if landowners don’t want to sell.
“In terms of the potential for jobs and good-paying jobs, we have to consider that,” Frye said. “But we certainly support the homeowners and the property owners and property rights. ... We will not use eminent domain. We’re not going to take anything for economic development, and at the same time, there are some property owners in the area that want to sell.”
Other possible sites?
Frye said when he first heard about the idea, some PTP representatives described the site as great for an automotive plant, but he’s heard no specifics about what companies are being targeted.
“They drew comparisons to Mercedes, Volkswagen, Toyota, BMW and the peripheral business it brings, but nobody has stepped up and said, ‘Yeah, some company is looking,’” he said. “It’s very, very speculative.”
He said the project would require significant investment from the state to prepare the site and, given possible changes in the way the state allocates incentives, there is too much uncertainty about whether that could happen, in his view.
“You are talking about a project that’s going to require millions (of dollars), and Randolph County’s not going to do that,” he said. “When I’m dealing with the public’s money, I’m not big on this ‘Field of Dreams — and if you build it, they will come.’ I want some more certainty.”
North Carolina has lost out to several of its neighbors in the Southeast that have landed auto plants over the past 20 years after ponying up millions of dollars worth of incentives.
Ferguson said estimates uncovered by his group show that it could cost up to $53 million to acquire the megasite and get utilities, roads and other infrastructure in place. In addition, the amount of state and local incentives — which could take the form of cash grants, tax breaks and free land or buildings — offered to convince a company to locate on the site could run as high as $400 million, according to estimates he said he’s seen.
He said there are already 180 vacant megasites — defined as at least 1,000 acres suitable for an industrial use — that have been prepared and are available across the country.
“Over a billion in tax dollars have been spent putting those things together and there’s not (anything) on one of them,” he said.