Thursday, January 21, 2016

Alan Ferguson: The megasite is a reckless gamble

Stolen in its entirety from the Greensboro News & Record:

By Alan Ferguson

A Jan. 10 editorial praised the North Carolina Railroad for purchasing 875 acres in rural Randolph County within the proposed Greensboro-Randolph Megasite (the GRM). The purchase, miles from the railroad’s nearest line, was called “bold and visionary.”

“Bold” certainly, but ask the developers of North Carolina’s original 1990s “megasite,” Kinston’s nearly vacant, taxpayer-funded Global Transpark, if boldness equates with returns on investment.

“Visionary” might apply also, if we so label pouring scarce taxpayer and public service funds out onto the rocky soil of a Randolph County Field of Dreams. The reckless gamble of money by Randolph, Greensboro, the Bryan Foundation and now the railroad (which is entirely state-owned) in buying property for speculative industrial real-estate development bears close examination.

The site already has a well-used Norfolk Southern-owned track and doesn’t need the railroad’s scarce infrastructure dollars. And if Norfolk Southern was a believer, why isn’t it investing its money?

No car company is knocking here. If any were, the Chatham-Randolph Megasite is nine air miles down U.S. 421 from the GRM. Under unitary ownership, it is zoned industrial and is state-certified. The Kingsboro-Rose Megasite, in Edgecombe County, in the heart of the tobacco country the Golden Leaf Foundation was created to help, has been available since 2010! Nearly 200 vacant sites are scattered across the United States; and then there’s Mexico, the new home of the last four foreign car makers to build in North America.

The Golden Leaf has not pledged money “to secure” an auto manufacturer. It has at least twice turned away city requests for money. Its actual pledge was an infrastructure contribution to the first of North Carolina’s “megasites” to recruit an auto maker. So, the $20 million to $26 million estimate for water and sewer lines to a site with no occupant is on Greensboro alone. And the GRM’s own information states that these services would be available only to the megasite — no other customers.

And where is the private investment? If the smart money liked this project, in our era of cheap money and an expanding economy, why is no one from that quarter looking to invest? From that void, the proponents of the GRM have looked to the taxpayers.

The state’s Job Development Investment Grant program, and its potential $35 million contribution to business recruitment, is cited as a financial contributor. Omitted is the requirement that a business must first be recruited and then meet stringent job-creation contractual terms before it is eligible for this incentive.

What is the true cost anyway? The GRM’s Jim Melvin himself stated that it is “more than $100 million before you even start looking at any buildings.” Presuming a company would become interested, the GRM’s own estimate for state incentives then necessary is $200,000 per job for 2,000 projected jobs — or $400 million.

And zoning? The megasite is “Residential-Agricultural” for miles around. With no industrial suitor, the proposal now is to topple over decades of public and private planning and investment and suddenly allow spot-zoning for a purpose as hostile to residential use as is conceivable.

Greensboro already has a “megasite” — the Piedmont Triad International Airport. It has railroads, interstates, hundreds of available acres and underused, first-class runways. It is unique in our region. It resembles the area around BMW in Spartanburg, S.C., except it is better. By abandoning focus on this proven growth engine and dreaming of empty woodlands and fields way down in Randolph County, isn’t Greensboro abandoning the visions that show the way to better days?

Alan Ferguson is a Greensboro lawyer who lives in Randolph County.