Developers eying Chatham site for auto plant

Sep. 11, 2013 @ 06:08 PM

Developers want to prep more than 1,700 acres in Chatham County as a potential site for an automotive assembly plant, a project official said at a meeting in Chapel Hill Wednesday.

The work to assess the land west of Siler City in Chatham County, Orange County’s southern neighbor, as a potential “mega-site” for industrial development was one of several development projects discussed at a briefing Wednesday.

Hosted by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce and the Chatham Chamber of Commerce, the briefing brought together residential and commercial real estate, business and other leaders to talk about mostly proposed development projects in Orange and Chatham counties.                                                                                                                                                    

“(Chatham County) is going to be the big news for development,” Brian Bock, vice chairman of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners, said at the briefing. He championed the proposed Chatham-Randolph Mega-site and other planned development projects in the county as potentially “huge” for Chatham as well as the region and state.

Just two owners own the property where the proposed Chatham-Randolph Mega-site west of Siler City is targeted, Nat D. Taylor, a Winston-Salem real estate professional representing the property owners, said at the briefing. Taylor said he has an agreement with the landowners.

One owner is D.H. Griffin Sr., the founder of the Greensboro-based demolition and construction business D.H. Griffin Companies, and the other is Tim Booras, president of the Greensboro-based alcohol distributor Freedom Beverage Co. Attempts to reach Booras and Griffin for comment Wednesday were unsuccessful.

The project could “change the face of North Carolina in many, many ways,” Taylor said. He said he believes an automotive plant could create jobs directly and could also create as many as seven times as many indirectly, as suppliers and other business would look to locate nearby.

He said an application has been submitted to the state for certification through a site readiness program. That program looks to ensure potential development sites meet a consistent set of standards, and is meant to reduce risks associated with development for businesses by providing information about access to utilities, roads and environmental concerns.

Taylor said officials are in giving information to the state to try to get the certification. Josh Ellis, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Commerce, said state officials are still waiting to receive all of the needed information.

Ellis also said that with the Chatham-Randolph Megasite -- and with all proposed large industrial sites – state economic development leaders are asking whether the large automotive projects are the type of jobs that they should be going after. Citing a state-prepared report, he said automotive and aerospace industry projects landed in other states in recent years required hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives.

“There’s a massive impact for these projects, and that’s why states go after them,” Ellis said Wednesday. “But at the end of the day, you can look around and see what the trends have been, and the question we’re asking here is, ‘OK, the site is an important part of the equation, but do we have the tools that we need to reel that fish all the way in?’ ”

In addition to going through the state’s site readiness program, the Chatham-Randolph site was chosen for Charlotte-based Duke Energy’s site readiness program, Taylor said. That program aims to identify and assess industrial sites in the utility’s territory. Through that program, Greenville, S.C.,-based McCallum Sweeney Consulting was paid to evaluate the site, and that work was completed earlier this year.

Mark Sweeney, senior principal at the South Carolina consulting firm, said the site has strengths in its size and limited land ownership, and utility infrastructure is “largely available.” He also described challenges including that the site is “somewhat far away” from a four-lane interstate highway. He added that state leaders have expressed interest in marketing the site.

“I would expect it to have a legitimate (chance) to compete, particularly if it moves through the full certification process,” Sweeney said.

Other potential sites around the Southeast are in varying degrees of readiness, Sweeney said, adding that the Southeast is in general competitive for that type of investment. The automotive industry is the “crown jewel” of economic development, he said, and a lot of states are interested.

At the same time, he said more than a half-dozen international companies have said they’d like to consider adding new manufacturing capacity in North America in the next five years.

“Whether those happen, or not, are still to be determined,” he said. “When they happen, some will happen on existing properties.”