Orange County

Chapel Hill research park lures homegrown biopharma company

This 19-acre former horse farm on Millhouse Road, near the Eubanks Road intersection, is under consideration for a project that would bring more offices, research labs and light-manufacturing space to Chapel Hill.
This 19-acre former horse farm on Millhouse Road, near the Eubanks Road intersection, is under consideration for a project that would bring more offices, research labs and light-manufacturing space to Chapel Hill.

A Chapel Hill-based biopharmaceutical company is the rumored new tenant for a future research and industry park on the northern edge of town.

Biotechnology consultant Timothy Vickers, with Slapshot Holdings LLC, and Durham architecture and design firm Coulter Jewell Thames have filed an application to build “Project Triumph” on 19 acres at 7300 Millhouse Road.

The plan proposes 250 parking spaces and 100,000 square feet of offices, research labs and light industrial space to replace a former horse farm and single-family home. The site is near the UPS operations center, Chapel Hill Transit park-and-ride lot and the Carraway Village community under construction on Eubanks Road.

Karl Hudson, senior vice president of land brokerage for Foundry Commercial, said Chapel Hill-based Asklepios Biopharmaceuticals (Askbio) may be considering the Project Triumph site for its new manufacturing facility, but nothing's confirmed yet.

Grubb, Tammy

Foundry Commercial represents the adjacent Carolina Innovation Park (formerly Carolina Flex Park), which the Town Council rezoned last year. The business park and Project Triumph are the first two projects for a 60-acre light-industrial district that the town created to generate more businesses, tax revenues and jobs.

Vickers and Askbio Chief Executive Officer Sheila Mikhail did not respond to requests for comment.

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said last year fall that Askbio was looking at several Chapel Hill sites, including the Millhouse Road district. The company, which makes gene therapies for rare diseases, also considered sites in Research Triangle Park and in Hillsborough, according to Hillsborough town documents.

Hillsborough weighed $385,000 in incentives last year to bring an Askbio manufacturing facility to Elizabeth Brady Road. The $50 million investment was expected to create 150 jobs over five years, with an average annual salary of $85,000, documents state.

Hillsborough economic development planner Shannan Campbell referred questions about the company and possible incentives to Askbio officials.

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Project Triumph could be built in phases, the application states, and would be constrained by streams, buffer areas and floodplains that cut through the site. Future connections to Carraway Village and to the Carolina Innovation Park are possible.

The Town Council and Planning Board would have to approve rezoning the specific site to the new light industrial conditional use zone available in the district. Annexation could be a condition for approval.

Once the rezoning is approved, detailed plans would be submitted to the town staff for review and approval. That process could include a public information meeting and detailed information about how the project could affect traffic.

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It would be smaller than Carolina Innovation Park, which was approved for 405,000 square feet of space with 580 parking spaces. Bold Construction co-owners Chris Ehrenfeld and Jason Dell bought the 12-acre site earlier this year for $1.5 million.

The land now is listed for sale at $2.875 million with Foundry Commercial.

Having the required zoning in place has created "a rare opportunity" for someone to buy or lease the Carolina Innovations Park site, Hudson said. A number of companies, including Askbio, have shown interest in setting up office and light-industrial operations, he said.

The Millhouse Road district is in a good location that also benefits from being in Chapel Hill and from the surrounding area, he said, including the Carraway Village development which is creating several hundred apartments, shops, offices and a hotel.

"It's definitely added value to the site,” Hudson said. “You have amenities in close proximity, right down the road from this location, which drives traffic and jobs. It gives them somewhere to go … that live, work and play atmosphere.”

Having Askbio next door “should only increase the marketability of our parcel,” he noted. “We hate that they’re not going on ours, but it should benefit us in the long run also.”

Hemminger said she couldn't confirm or deny Askbio's interest in the Project Triumph site.

"We'd love it if the start-ups that start in this area want to stay here, and we try to help whenever we can, but I can't confirm anything," she said.

Dwight Bassett, the town's economic development director, also declined to comment on Project Triumph or the future of Carolina Innovations Park because of ongoing negotiations. However, he agreed Project Triumph could be good news.

"We've had numerous companies that we've connected with property owners out there in an attempt to market the property and make sure people are aware of the opportunity in Chapel Hill," Bassett said. "Absolutely, it's been a huge asset in our portfolio."

What's next

A Project Triumph public information meeting is scheduled for 5:15 p.m. Monday, May 14, in the first-floor conference room at Chapel Hill Town Hall. Town Hall is located at 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926; @TammyGrubb