Guilford County was in the running to be the site of a new $100 million processing and distribution center that would have used 150 acres of land that is now the center of operations of the Guilford County Prison Farm.
However, on Wednesday, Sept. 12 – one day after the commissioners voted to move the county Prison Farm to make way for the project – Guilford County Manager Brenda Jones Fox called the commissioners to inform them that Guilford County was out of the running for the large center that would have brought between 400 and 500 new jobs to Guilford County.
Area economic development officials had told the commissioners that the center could turn out to be the cornerstone of a giant industrial and commercial park that would lie on and around what is now Prison Farm land.
On Monday morning, Sept. 10, economic development officials met with Gibsonville Mayor Lenny Williams and told him about the project. That meeting, held in Gibsonville, was attended by Fox, Commissioner Kirk Perkins, Greensboro Economic Development Alliance President Dan Lynch, Gibsonville staff and a few others.
According to Williams, area economic development officials wanted to know if the City of Gibsonville would be willing to sell water to a possible new center at rates it sells water to in-town customers. Gibsonville charges double rates for the water it provides outside of the town limits. However, Lynch and his team wanted to know if Gibsonville was willing to sell roughly 140,000 gallons a day to the plant at town rates rather than at double the price.
The prospective company, still unknown, also wanted assurance that Guilford County would be willing to sell the Prison Farm land and move or close those prison operations, and, at the Tuesday, Sept. 11 Guilford County Board of Commissioners meeting, after an hour-long closed session, the board voted to relocate the county's Prison Farm if the company in question made a firm commitment to the project on that site within the next 90 days. The motion adopted by the board required that the company commit to an investment of at least $85 million and create at least 400 new jobs.
The project that was presented to Williams would have been $15 million over that minimum requirement and would have brought over 400 jobs if the county's Prison Farm site had been selected. However, Fox told commissioners on Wednesday that company officials felt it would take too long for the county and the state to get the needed infrastructure in place – road expansions, new water lines and other changes necessary accommodate such a large facility
According to sources familiar with the talks, the company has also been considering competing sites in Alamance County on a tract near Mebane, as well as a county in Virginia and possibly one other location. Those are still in the running as far as The Rhinoceros Times is aware.
Williams said he was floored at the Sept. 10 morning meeting when Lynch presented the project to him and asked him if Gibsonville would be willing to supply so much water to the facility. Gibsonville buys its water from the City of Burlington and Gibsonville has water lines that could be extended to the Prison Farm land.
Williams said it was indicated to him that the state would be willing to pay for the road expansion necessary in the area if the company had agreed to build its facility on that site.
Commissioner Billy Yow said that, in a closed session with commissioners at the Tuesday night meeting, Lynch told the board that "the state has the money available for road expansion."
The commissioners and other county officials were in good spirits after that closed session because at that point it sounded almost like a sure thing to many of them. But those hopes were dashed the next day at about 6 p.m. when Fox began spreading the bad news by calling individual commissioners.
Before the deal fell through, Williams said he had a great deal of concern about the traffic that the new facility would bring because, he said, he was told it would mean 500 to 700 truck trips a day near Gibsonville and Elon as trucks made their way to and from the interstate highways and other major traffic arteries.
Williams said he told Lynch at that meeting that a decision of that type would have to be voted on by the Gibsonville Town Council.
"I told them it was not my decision to make," Williams said.
When Lynch told the Guilford County commissioners of the project in the closed session, he did not identify the company nor did he tell them the nature of the company's operations. However, one source said he had heard that it would rely heavily on freezers and refrigeration units, and another said he had heard it would be a food processing and distribution center as well as a "cold and dry storage" facility.
The project had been a well-kept secret. "They have kept this very hush, hush," Williams said.
Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes was out of the county at a sheriff's conference this week, but Sheriff's Department Major Debbie Montgomery was at the Sept. 11 commissioners meeting and she participated in the closed session.
On Wednesday morning, Sept. 12, Montgomery met at the Prison Farm with department employees who work there.
After the Tuesday night meeting, she said she wanted to make sure the Prison Farm staff is kept informed of what's going on and she wants to be certain that people understand the Prison Farm operations might be moved but would not be shut down.
"I think they will have a lot of questions," Montgomery said.
Now they will no longer have those questions.
Montgomery said she would also be meeting with some Sheriff's Department staff to study exactly what would be involved in relocating the Prison Farm operations as well as to determine some preliminary cost estimates.
The 800-acre farm consists of about 750 acres in Guilford County and about 50 in Alamance County, and it holds inmates convicted of non-violent crimes who are considered low security risks.
Lynch said after the Sept. 10 meeting that one attractive aspect of the Prison Farm land was that it had only one owner – Guilford County.
He said it is easier for companies to buy a large area of land from one seller than to assemble it by negotiating with multiple property owners. He also said the hope was that much of the other 800 acres could be developed as well.
Lynch also said that, since there was a great deal of agricultural land bordering the Prison Farm, some of that land could also perhaps be used for the planned large commercial and industrial park as well.
At the Sept. 11 commissioners meeting, Commissioner Linda Shaw summed up the prevailing view of the Board of Commissioners.
"This is jobs," she said.
Commissioner Paul Gibson said the project would be a good chance for Guilford County to collaborate with Gibsonville, Burlington and others. He said it would be a prime opportunity to work together as a region.
Not all the commissioners were in favor of the contingent motion to relocate the Prison Farm. The motion passed 8 to 3 with Commissioners Yow, Perkins and Bill Bencini voting against the move.
Those three commissioners cited concerns that the county was committing to an unknown cost of relocating the Prison Farm operations. They said the county knew very little about the proposed project or the potential infrastructure enhancements that would be required, and they turned out to be right.
At the meeting, Yow said, "We don't know what the infrastructure costs will be? One million? Three? Five?"
Bencini also said it was irresponsible for the board to take action without knowing more specifics.
Perkins said the 800-acre Prison Farm was one of the few major tracts of land left in Guilford County. Like Yow and Bencini, Perkins said the county didn't know nearly enough to make an informed vote.
"This is one of the few times when our manager has said she doesn't know the cost," Perkins said.
Commissioner Mike Winstead said after the meeting that he agreed there were a lot of questions to be answered, but he added that he had no problem voting in favor of the motion, which was contingent on action by the unnamed company, because the commissioners would have to vote again to take any final action, and at that point, Winstead said, the board should know most of the pertinent details.
Now the commissioners have had the decision made for them.