By Matt Tarleton, Project Manager.
Some of my earliest and fondest childhood memories were set in Brunswick County, North Carolina: fishing with my father and grandfather, learning the art of developing “drip castles,”
and discovering what it feels like to swallow a mouthful of saltwater.
Since those early days as a child, Brunswick County, and more
specifically Ocean Isle Beach, has become an incredibly special place in
my life. Having moved throughout North Carolina and Georgia occupying
more than ten different houses along the way, my family’s place in Ocean
Isle has been the single constant “home” throughout my 29 years on this
earth. It is where I discovered the ultimate recipe for tranquility:
equal parts rocking chair, crossword puzzle, and ocean view.
Brunswick County is the southernmost county in North Carolina, located
between Wilmington and Myrtle Beach, and occupying a stretch of
coastline that actually faces south. If you’ve ever had Calabash-style
fried shrimp, you’ve tasted Brunswick County. The county’s full-time
resident population has tripled in the last thirty years, placing it
among the fastest growing counties in the country. While the county
relies heavily upon seasonal travel to its beaches, its economy is more
diverse than one might assume. The southeastern portion of the county is
directly adjacent to the Port of Wilmington and as a result, wholesale
trade, warehousing, transportation, and manufacturing activities have
complemented travel and tourism. As much as the county has changed
during my lifetime, it still looks and feels the same to me. Aside from
the aforementioned proximity to the port, there has been little to
signal to me that the county is a major player for large economic
development projects. I was wrong.
On your way down to Ocean Isle from Raleigh, you’ll hop onto highway 17
outside Wilmington, just barely bypassing Leland, a small community of
roughly 2,000 residents. I knew little (okay, nothing) about Leland
until last week when I heard the news that Caterpillar had chosen
Athens, Georgia as the site for a new manufacturing facility that will
bring 1,400 jobs. Caterpillar chose a site on the border of Clarke and
Oconee counties that has been undeveloped and marketed to manufacturers
for over 30 years, ever since IBM withdrew plans to construct a major
computer manufacturing facility. Thirty years! While I am delighted that
Georgia has secured such a large project at such an important time, I
was saddened to hear that Brunswick County was the runner-up.
Brunswick County’s two largest employers are the County and its school
system. There are no private employers with more than 1,000 employees
and only two private employers with more than 500 employees (Wal-Mart
and Progress Energy). But in the span of two short months, Brunswick
County has lost two major projects that would have brought a combined
3,000 jobs to the county. The fact that Brunswick County was even in the
running, and incredibly the runner-up, was due largely to the
incredible investment made in ready-to-go industrial sites and shell
buildings in Leland, that little community that I always bypassed and
never gave a passing thought.
Between the Leland Industrial Park, the International Logistics Park,
and the Mid-Atlantic Logistics Center, Brunswick County was able to
offer these two prospective companies an incredible package. Combined
they were able to offer roughly 2,500 acres of industrial land,
including two vacant 1,000 acre parks already serviced with water,
sewer, natural gas and fiber optics. Brunswick Community College
operates a satellite campus at Leland Industrial Park to meet the needs
of employers on site. How incredible is that? Unfortunately it wasn’t
enough for the two prospects.
The first project that Brunswick County lost was a Continental Tire
facility employing 1,600 individuals that ultimately went to South
Carolina. Brunswick County lost that project due to bickering at the
State Capitol regarding the appropriate level of incentives. Apparently
North Carolina’s lawmakers are suddenly wary of large incentives after
granting Google an incentive package valued at $212 million for 210 data
center jobs (yes, more than $1 million per job) in 2007. This followed
the $242 million package that the state alone provided to Dell Computer
in 2004 (Dell closed its facility four years later). Continental Tire
wanted $45 million in upfront cash incentives to support its initial
capital investment, lawmakers balked, and South Carolina won the project
by providing the winning county (Sumter) with a $33 million grant to
develop the site that Continental Tire chose.
The second project that Brunswick County lost was the aforementioned
Caterpillar facility. Caterpillar executives and site selection
consultants indicated that the Athens site was chosen over the Brunswick
site due to confidence that the Port of Savannah would secure channel
deepening to 50 feet. Both the Port of Wilmington (just a few miles from
the Brunswick sites) and the Port of Savannah (more than 200 miles from
the Athens site) are currently at 42 feet, but access to a deep water
port that can accommodate much larger “post-Panamax” cargo chips. This
time around, North Carolina lawmakers were apparently poised to offer up
to $90 million in incentives to secure Caterpillar, more than the
roughly $77 million offered at the state and local level in Georgia.
Leaders in Brunswick County are undoubtedly disappointed and frustrated.
Projects like Caterpillar and Continental Tire are incredibly rare and
the county did everything it could to secure both. Decades of investment
positioned the county to compete for these two projects but in the end
items outside their control resulted in the projects going elsewhere (or
so we’re told). And while Brunswick County is probably experiencing
that “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” feeling, they have
positioned themselves well and should be optimistic that opportunities
will continue to come. I’ll never look at Brunswick County the same.
Hopefully the same is true for the site selection community.