In the wake of the sudden end to the promising venture of a $100 million food distribution center an unknown company was considering building at the Guilford County Prison Farm, bringing 400 or 500 new jobs to the area, there's now no giant new facility, no new jobs and no new investment. However, among local officials, there is a lot of disappointment and finger pointing. There are also a lot of questions.
The questions have come from the fact that, on Tuesday, Sept. 11, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners came out of an hour-long closed session and, out of the blue, voted to relocate the county's Prison Farm facilities to another area of the Prison Farm – and, less than 24 hours later, Guilford County officials were being informed that the giant new deal, with hundreds of new jobs and $100 million in investment on the line, had evaporated back into the same thin air it seemingly came out of.
About 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 12, Greensboro Economic Development Alliance President Dan Lynch called Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Skip Alston and told him the deal had fallen through.
Alston phoned Guilford County Manager Brenda Jones Fox and asked her to inform the board. Fox began calling commissioners, telling them the company had pulled out.
The reason given for the company's decision was that the company wanted to move quickly and there were concerns that rezoning the land at the Prison Farm for industrial use and extending water and sewer lines from Gibsonville would take too long.
When Fox told the commissioners the bad news, she instructed them that the sudden demise of the deal was "confidential." However, the Thursday, Sept. 13 edition of The Rhinoceros Times reported that the deal had fallen through.
With little to no information on why the company had pulled out, some area leaders – behind the scenes at least – were playing the blame game.
Some said Gibsonville was at fault because the town hadn't jumped at the opportunity to provide low-cost water for the project that would have given Gibsonville no new property tax revenue – but would have brought 500 to 700 additional truck trips a day near and through the town.
Others blamed the three commissioners who voted against moving the Prison Farm – saying the three dissenting votes made the company realize Guilford County wasn't entirely behind the project.
According to some, Lynch and other area economic development officials got way ahead of themselves – making an obviously tenuous project sound like a nearly done deal.
Still others say Guilford County is to blame because it has been dragging its feet for years when it comes to preparing for large-scale economic development – for instance, earlier this year the Board of Commissioners unanimously rejected conducting a study of the Prison Farm that would have answered a lot of questions the company had. Others place the blame on all of the above.
When Lynch left the county commissioners meeting on Sept. 11 after convincing the board to vote to move the Prison Farm operations, contingent on the company choosing Guilford County for the new facility, Lynch was all smiles. However, the next day county officials got word that the deal was dead. Lynch wouldn't comment on the sudden turn around or anything related to the project.
"I can't talk about the project at all," Lynch told The Rhinoceros Times this week.
Alston said that, from his conversation with Lynch, he thought that Lynch, like the commissioners, had been blindsided by the decision.
"I think it surprised Dan too," Alston said.
Alston said Lynch asked the commissioners to agree to move the county's Prison Farm operations because Lynch was doing everything he could to land the highly beneficial project for Guilford County, and one of the things Lynch felt would help make that happen was if the Board of Commissioners showed it was willing to move the Prison Farm operations.
Lynch said he's of the opinion that the land at the Prison Farm has a "higher and better use" for the community than its current use.
"That was the premise that we laid out to the commissioners," Lynch said.
At the Sept. 11 Board of Commissioners meeting, the three no votes were from Commissioners Kirk Perkins, Bill Bencini and Billy Yow.
Lynch said he was of course hoping for a unanimous vote from the board to demonstrate that the county was 100 percent behind the company coming here.
Alston said this week that it was his understanding that the company pulled out of Guilford County because of infrastructure issues and rezoning concerns given the company's desire to move quickly.
Alston also expressed those sentiments in a Thursday, Sept. 13 memo that he sent to his fellow commissioners. The memo states: "We were informed that the party interested in pursuing a site at the Prison Farm has eliminated Guilford County (the Prison Farm) from consideration.
"This decision was based on the fact that the critical factors involved timing issues beyond our ability to control pertaining to the extension of water & sewer service to the property and the rezoning process.
"In the final analysis the client's consultant determined we could not accommodate their aggressive development schedule. The consultant did strongly encourage we use this situation and the experience gained to move forward in our plans to develop the Farm property."
According to several sources, the mystery company that snubbed Guilford County is now considering two remaining sites – one near Mebane and another in Virginia.
Alston said Perkins, who lives in Gibsonville, didn't want the project in that area, and Alston added that Gibsonville was against providing water for the company.
The truth is that the stance of Gibsonville isn't known since the town was presented with the idea on Monday Sept. 10, and they had no time to learn the most basic facts or discuss the matter in any detail. The company pulled out on Sept. 12, and the Gibsonville Town Council hadn't met in the meantime – before they could, the deal had evaporated.
Perkins, Yow and Bencini said they voted against the project because they didn't know enough about it. In the Sept. 11 Board of Commissioners closed session, the commissioners didn't find out what company it was, what product would be made or handled there, or much of anything else other than the fact that there was a large company with a giant project – a building of over 1 million square feet, $100 million in new investment, and 400 to 500 new jobs.
Yow said he did learn some details later. He said the sought after facility was a "large cannery."
He said that's why it would bring so many trucks and why it would be so water intensive.
"They would be bringing in vegetables and washing them and packaging them and then loading up the trucks and driving them off," Yow said.
Gibsonville Mayor Lenny Williams said the first time he officially heard about the project was at the Monday, Sept 10 town staff meeting, when Lynch told Gibsonville officials of the deal. Perkins and Fox were also at that meeting.
Williams said he told Lynch at that Monday morning meeting that any decision regarding selling water would have to be made by the town council, rather than the mayor acting alone.
Williams said he had gotten some calls in the previous week that made him think something was up.
"I started getting calls with people saying that they were closing the Prison Farm," Williams said.
The following night, Williams showed up and sat quietly at the Guilford County Board of Commissioners meeting. He said he went to that meeting because of rumors that Guilford County was closing the Prison Farm. He said he wanted to see what, if anything, the commissioners were going to do.
That night, Williams told The Rhinoceros Times that he didn't know exactly what to think of the project. He said he had just heard the proposal a day before, and he said town officials were just beginning to study the cost of the project and the effect it would have on Gibsonville and the surrounding area.
Williams said hundreds of new jobs would certainly be welcome. However, he added, residents in the area were very concerned about the huge increase in truck traffic that would come with the project.
He said residents who live on the roads the trucks would use to get to the interstate – largely Gibsonville Ossipee Road, Manning Avenue and University Drive – were the people with the greatest concerns.
Williams said some roads would have needed to be widened to accommodate the truck traffic, and he added that a nice dog park and children's park had recently been built along that route.
According to Williams, NC 61 would have been heavily used by the trucks as well.
Williams also said he lives right on the path that the trucks would take and he spoke with his family that Monday night and asked them how they felt about 500 to 700 more trucks a day coming down the street.
"Right now we get 10 or 12 Sonoco trucks that go by," he said.
He also said he'd heard that, if Gibsonville didn't want to supply the water, Burlington might have been willing to extend water to the site – though he added that would have been very expensive. He said he'd heard it could cost about $5 million to run water from Burlington to the Prison Farm site the company was considering.
The proposed facility would have required an estimated 140,000 gallons of water a day and the mystery company was asking to buy the water at the same rate that Gibsonville charges it own residents. According to Williams, rough initial estimates were that that might mean an additional $150,000 in revenue for Gibsonville each year.
Gibsonville buys its water from Burlington and pays $2.76 per unit (1,000 gallons). It then sells that water to Gibsonville residents at $4.90 per unit, and sells it to customers outside the Gibsonville town limits at $9.80 per unit.
All of those high-intensity, hurried discussions about water and infrastructure are moot now.
Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes said Sheriff's Department officials had been moving quickly to accommodate the project. Barnes said he didn't know what company it was, but he added that many members of his staff had been trying to guess ever since his department caught word of the big plans. The guesses ranged from Wal-Mart to Sam's Club to Costco to Sheetz.
Barnes added that he was familiar with the code name that economic development officials used to refer to the project: Swordfish.
Barnes said he was at a sheriff's function out of town when the Sept. 11 closed session took place, but he did participate in that closed session by telephone. Barnes said he's always in favor of what's good for Guilford County and he will do what he can to promote jobs; but he said that in hindsight it certainly looks like the economic development people got ahead of themselves.
The sheriff said the commissioners might not be so eager to accommodate Lynch's requests in the future.
"The next time he goes in there to ask for something, some commissioners will say, 'We've heard this before, this is just one more pie-in-the-sky project,'" Barnes said.
One reason a lot of these questions are unanswered, Lynch said, is because the county decided not to fund a Prison Farm development feasibility study he proposed to the commissioners about eight months ago.
Lynch said that study would have cost between $30,000 and $100,000, depending on how comprehensive the approved version of the study was. He said a good study would include soil borings, soil composition tests, infrastructure analysis and more.
He said that the next proactive step – providing water to the area in hopes that some future tenants may come – was certainly a harder sell, since that could be a very expensive endeavor with no guaranteed payoff.
Lynch said that, now that the county had lost a very big fish it had on the line, the commissioners might be willing to reconsider funding the study so the county could be better prepared when the next big opportunity arises.
"I would say, let's learn from this," Lynch said.
He said he was still optimistic that about 750 acres of the Prison Farm could eventually be transformed into a thriving industrial park.
Lynch said that getting land rezoned was a difficult process that took time because it required public notice and a public hearing and a contentious rezoning with appeals can extend the process further. He said that, in some other areas across the country, land for such large projects had already been rezoned in anticipation that an opportunity such as this one might arise. He said that, in cases where a company wants to get up and running very quickly, having potential sites already rezoned with infrastructure in place would be a big selling point.
Yow said that there were a lot of negatives no one was talking about. He said it would have cost a great deal to, among other things, move the Prison Farm on very short notice.
"It would have been a rush job," Yow said, adding that that certainly would have increased the cost of relocating the Prison Farm operations.
Yow also said the county would no doubt either give away the 150 acres needed by the company or sell it to the company for a song, and then the county would give three to five years of incentives so the project wouldn't make money for taxpayers for years.
Yow said that, when the money is factored in to move the farm operations and enhance infrastructure, the deal would have turned out to be much less appealing than first billed.
According to Yow, it's misguided to criticize the three commissioners who voted against moving the Prison Farm. He said the irresponsible ones were the other commissioners who voted to move the Prison Farm that had been in place without knowing the cost of any of the major details of the project.
Alston said he still thinks the Prison Farm property would be an ideal location for a large industrial park, and he said that, when future opportunities come up, the county would be wise to be prepared.
"We need to go ahead and work out the zoning and work out the water," Alston said.
Guilford County Sheriff's Department Major Debbie Montgomery, who in addition to her other duties oversees operations at the Prison Farm, said that, even though this particular project had fallen through, she had been asked to continue studying what it would take and how much it would cost to move the Prison Farm's operations to another part of the 800-acre farm.
Alston said Guilford County needs to learn from this event and take measures now to make sure the county is set up to handle future projects of this size and nature.