RTP leader: No competition expected with proposed Chatham Park

Jul. 23, 2013 @ 06:46 PM

A Research Triangle Park leader doesn’t expect a proposed development on the eastern side of Pittsboro would compete with the Triangle’s business park.

At full build-out, the proposed 7,100-acre Chatham Park development would house about 50,000 people, increasing Pittsboro’s population by 12 and a half times, according to a memo to the town’s Board of Commissioners from town staff.

The project would also include more than 13 million square feet of research and development space, according to another town document.

“We are all part of the same region,” said Bob Geolas, president and CEO of the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina, which manages the Research Triangle Park in Wake and Durham counties. “All of these projects, when they’re successful, feed off of each other. It’s like being in Silicon Valley -- the more projects that can be successful, the better.”

The Pittsboro Board of Commissioners held the second of two public hearings on Monday to gather comment on the re-zoning proposal for primarily vacant, undeveloped land for Chatham Park.

With more than 30 speakers and three hours of public comment, residents urged the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners not to rush the project forward without proper environmental vetting and an understanding of how the park would mesh with the current composition of the town. 

There has been a great outpouring from area residents with regard to this project, said Pittsboro Mayor Randy Voller, and town officials are listening. 

Many residents expressed worry that the development would erode and eclipse Pittsboro’s small-town charm.

If there are not dedicated individuals evaluating and reviewing the park’s proposal, local resident Miriam Pollard said, she’s worried Pittsboro’s downtown may be edged out by big-box stores. 

“I think we have more questions now than we’ve had in the past,” Pittsboro Commissioner Beth Turner said in an interview Tuesday after the meeting. Turner said town leaders now have comments from more than 70 people to sift through as a result of the two hearings.

Turner said the developers are looking to develop an “emerging technologies park” as part of the project. She spoke in support of new jobs for the community, but also about the need for the town to “drive the dialogue” about a project that would significantly grow the town’s population.

Commissioners will continue talks about the development at a work session Aug. 12, she said.

“It’s a process, it’s evolving, and it’s been going on, so I think that we just need to be mindful of how we approach this,” she said.

Tim Smith, an owner of Preston Development Co. of Cary, the developer behind the proposed project, said that including retail and office as well as research and development space, the project would include about 20 million square feet of non-residential space. That would be developed over 30 to 40 years, he said.

The developers are in talks with state commerce officials to try to bring research facilities and other commercial development to the project, he said. The have a commitment from UNC Health Care for a medical facility in the park, he said, and they’re talking to potential retailers about uses from movie theaters to bowling alleys.

Smith said that Jim Goodnight, co-founder and CEO of Cary-based SAS, the business analytics software provider, and John Sall, SAS’ co-founder and executive vice president, are investors in the project.

Land acquisition started about six years ago, Smith said. He said they targeted the area between Pittsboro and Chapel Hill because they believe that’s where growth will occur.

“We buy land where it’s going to grow,” he said. “We identified that area about 10 years ago, and it’s playing itself out right now.”

Smith said he doesn’t believe the project will compete with the Research Triangle Park.

“There’s no competition as we see it,” said Geolas, who also said he believes Chatham Park’s developers are looking at “somewhat different models” from what Research Triangle Park officials are looking at in terms of residential and retail development.

Park officials are looking to redevelop the park to draw residential and retail construction.

“It’s been awhile since I met with the Chatham folks, (but) as I understand it, there will be a lot of focus on more traditional kind of residential,” he said.

Geolas said overall recruitment is challenging now, but he also said the Research Triangle Park “will always have a special relationship with the universities,” and universities drive the park’s economic development.

“There will always be a special relationship for RTP, but that won’t mean there isn’t room for other projects to be successful,” he said.

The Sanford Herald’s Anna Johnson contributed to this report.