Chatham County

Chatham weighs ‘megasite’ spending to lure industry

A 2014 file photo shows part of the 1,800-acre property in western Chatham County.
A 2014 file photo shows part of the 1,800-acre property in western Chatham County. N&O file photo

Chatham County commissioners are weighing whether to invest $125,001 to help bring water and sewer service to industrial megasites planned near Moncure and Siler City.

The money could garner the county 13 miles of new pipe, another million gallons per day capacity each for water and sewer, and $8 million in grant money from the Golden LEAF Foundation. The nonprofit helps rural communities transition away from tobacco production using money from a nationwide settlement with cigarette makers.

To be eligible for the grant money, the 1,802- and 1,077-acre properties would need to be under public control for the next five years, County Manager Renee Paschal told the board. Commissioners could pay $125,001 to secure the option to buy the land from the current owners while working to attract investors.

Ultimately, the goal is to bring industrial manufacturing companies to the sites, generating jobs and revenue for the county, said Paschal. But even if the sites never draw a major manufacturer, she said, the grant money would ensure infrastructure was in place for other uses.

“Golden LEAF’s expectation is that infrastructure, those pipes in the ground, serve more than just the megasites,” said Paschal. “That they open [the area] up for commercial and industrial development.”

Siler City is partnering with the county on the Chatham Advanced Manufacturing, or CAM, site. The town has already secured $4 million in Golden LEAF money for the project, and is expected to invest another $125,000 to option the land.

Siler City Town Commissioner Lewis Fadely is enthusiastic about the chance to bring manufacturing to Chatham.

“I really do believe that there is a synergy between the Siler City CAM site and the Moncure site,” he said. “I don’t think any other state can boast two sister sites that support each other.”

Coal ash money

The cost to secure the option on the Moncure site is just $1, but it comes with the expectation that the county cover a $3.4 million shortfall in funding for the nine-mile sewer line.

County officials propose paying for that using money from the county’s coal ash fund, paid by Duke Energy to compensate for burying coal ash in a former clay mine near Moncure.

The county received $6 million in payments before Superior Court Judge Carl Fox ruled in March that the state improperly issued permits for coal ash storage sites in Chatham and Lee counties.

Pittsboro resident John Wagner warned against spending the coal ash money on infrastructure, arguing it would be needed to monitor the impact of coal ash storage on water quality.

He also cautioned that using tobacco money to lure manufacturing could mean trading one questionable revenue source for another.

“I think you need to remember that this money, this big money that you’re anxious to get a hold of to help the county, was brought in as ‘Gold Leaf’ money because of a dirty industry, the tobacco industry, which caused health problems for this state,” said Wagner. “To bring in industries that would cause more health problems in Moncure, which is already dealing with coal ash, seems absurd.”

To be eligible for the Golden LEAF grants, the county must secure the options on the properties by June 1. The commissioners will vote on the proposal in May.

Elizabeth Friend: