Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Always the Bridesmaid, Never the Bride

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.