By SCOTT D. YOST
May 8, 2014
In a move likely to ruffle the feathers of some economic development officials in local and state government, North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler plans to hold a press conference at the Guilford County Prison Farm near Gibsonville on Wednesday, May 14 to express his fierce opposition to the proposed giant data center park known as Project Haystack.
Troxler’s fight against the project will place him in direct opposition to others in state government who are attempting to move the project forward.
Plans were for Troxler’s May 14 press conference to be announced on Monday, May 12. However, when the Rhino Times discovered those plans and asked Troxler the nature of his upcoming event, the agriculture secretary was willing to offer a preview. He said the press conference will be part of his attempt to stop the proposed $103 million project that would be built on about 1,800 acres of what’s now largely farmland.
Guilford County owns just over 800 acres of land comprising the Prison Farm, and Project Haystack plans call for the county to acquire a great deal of the surrounding property to add to that Prison Farm land, and then work with other local governments to create a giant data center park that would also include high-tech manufacturing facilities.
Details of the project became public last October when revealed in this newspaper. The City of Greensboro, unbeknownst to most city councilmembers, had already spent $53,000 on a study to get the project started even though none of the land being considered is in Greensboro.
In November, Guilford County allocated $30,000 to get the project underway.
Troxler recently toured the site and said that, even though the North Carolina Department of Transportation (DOT) and the economic development arm of state government had been attempting to advance the project, he wanted to make it clear that not every arm of state government is behind the plan.
Troxler said he’s prepared to do what he can as the state’s agriculture commissioner to see that the land in and around the Prison Farm remains farmland. He said it’s a lack of foresight that’s driving the zealous attempts to develop the land, which, he said, is one of Guilford County’s most valuable resources.
“I’m going to indicate my support for derailing Project Haystack,” Troxler said.
He said the tremendous amount of money called for by the project would be going toward something detrimental to the county. He added that he had spoken with economic development officials in state government who were trying to facilitate the plan.
“I expressed my displeasure,” Troxler said of those conversations.
He said that on May 14 he planned to make it clear that he was against the project and wanted to explore ways to preserve the land.
“I want to see that land remain rural,” he said.
According to Troxler, the plan to develop the area is in direct conflict with the adopted Guilford County Northeast Area Plan, which calls for much of the land to remain open space. He also said that not long ago Guilford County had spent $2.3 million to purchase 400 acres of land for open space preservation.
“This goes right in the face of that effort,” Troxler said.
According to Troxler, it doesn’t make sense for the county to turn around and buy hundreds of acres of open-space land to give away to future data park tenants as part of an incentives package to draw those companies to Guilford County.
Troxler said it’s an astronomical amount of money for a project that’s highly speculative, and one that would displace already existing businesses.
“The largest industry in North Carolina is agribusiness, which is an $80 billion industry,” Troxler said.
He added that taking away all this rural land in eastern Guilford County and western Alamance County is nonsensical, since disappearing farmland is already a major problem in the county and the state.
“From 1970 to 2010, the state lost 6.6 million acres of farmland to development,” Troxler said. “I know we need jobs in North Carolina, but this type of development doesn’t bring jobs. It does increase the tax base, but at what cost.”
He said states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York were currently investing in creating more open space, and he added that the problem with most of those efforts is that they started to late, and were attempts to repair damage that had already been done.
Troxler pointed to the Dell computer plant near Winston-Salem and other projects across the state that have promised many new jobs and an increase in the tax base but didn’t pan out, and he said the success of Project Haystack is also highly uncertain.
He added that the food to feed the world’s increasing population has to come from somewhere.
The agriculture commissioner said he’s getting some pushback from those in the state government who are trying to help make Project Haystack become a reality. But he said that being an elected rather than an appointed official gives him the ability to speak his mind – something he intends to do strongly on May 14.
“As a statewide elected official, I’m not beholden to others in state government,” he said.
Troxler said he’d seen estimates that Project Haystack would bring in $6.5 billion in investments, but there was nothing to back up those numbers. He said any revenue projections for the project were highly conjectural and, if the county is looking for jobs, data centers are not the way to go.
Data centers require very few workers to run. The giant $1 billion Apple data center in Maiden, North Carolina, for instance, only created about 50 jobs.
Anne Hice, whose family has owned and operated a farm in Guilford County for over a century, was one of several people who helped show Troxler around the Prison Farm area when he toured the proposed Project Haystack site recently.
Hice said it was a very shortsighted move to destroy the county’s open space.
“This farmland is just too valuable,” she said.
At a Guilford County Board of Commissioners meeting last month, residents spoke from the floor and requested a meeting with the Board of Commissioners to discuss plans for the area, but Hice said that request has been ignored. She said she didn’t know what Troxler had in store for his press conference, but she was pleased that a state official was apparently going to help opponents fight the project.
Hice said she thinks the fact that Troxler is a resident of Brown Summit and is familiar with the intrinsic value of the rural land in that area helps his understanding of the situation. And she added that she certainly agrees with his assessment that the project would be very harmful for Guilford County.
Sources say that the Guilford County commissioners and County Manager Marty Lawing were made aware of Troxler’s intent to hold the May 14 press conference but were asked to keep it quiet until an announcement of the event was made by Troxler’s office next week.
Troxler, Hice and other opponents of Project Haystack may be fighting a downhill battle against a cause that’s already lost. The plans for a data center got off to a roaring start last year but the ambitious project’s momentum has been waning in 2014.
Lawing hasn’t asked the Guilford County Board of Commissioners for any additional money since the county approved $30,000 for the project last November, and it’s unlikely the Guilford County Board of Commissioners would approve any more money for the project right now, even if Lawing did make the request.
At a recent budget meeting, a preliminary list of projects to be funded in the upcoming 2014-2015 budget didn’t include any money for Project Haystack. Other proposed partners in the project – such as the cities of Greensboro and Burlington – also don’t seem very eager to pursue the project either.
Guilford County Commissioner Hank Henning said this week that he hasn’t even heard Project Haystack mentioned in a long while.
“I can’t tell you the last time that I heard it discussed,” Henning said.
He said he asked Lawing about the status of the project around a month ago and Lawing had told him that land acquisition efforts had been very slow.