Posted: Wednesday, May 14, 2014 11:25 pm
GREENSBORO — When Steve Troxler came to Guilford County on Wednesday morning, he wasn’t just here to speak as North Carolina’s agriculture secretary.
He said he had another reason for calling a press conference at the Guilford County Prison Farm.
That, Troxler said, was why he felt compelled to speak out against Project Haystack — the vague but ambitious plan to transform more than 1,000 acres of rural, county-owned land into a sprawling industrial park.
Speaking to reporters, local residents and farmers, Troxler said that using North Carolina’s quickly disappearing open space and farmland to attract other industries isn’t wise.
“Agriculture is North Carolina’s biggest industry,” he said. “It has $78 billion in economic impact in North Carolina. And farms are the bedrock of this industry. These farms have got to be revered across North Carolina.”
Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson and Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes echoed that sentiment.
They also said they are particularly galled that Project Haystack calls not just for the transformation of agricultural land such as the 800-acre prison farm, which is owned by the county, but it would require the county to buy and give away even more farmland.
“When they say they want us to give away the land that belongs to the Guilford County taxpayer for this dream of build it and they will come … I’m totally, 100 percent against that,” Branson said.
To move forward with Project Haystack, the county would have to donate 600 acres of public land, valued at about $3.7 million, to private companies that would develop the park.
Guilford also would need to borrow about $15 million to buy at least 600 additional acres, also to be donated. It would then have to help pay for road improvements and extensions of water and sewer lines. That would cost about $81.1 million.
Companies would seek individual economic incentive packages to move to the new park.
With Guilford County already saddled with more than $900 million in debt related to new schools, school repairs and the building of the new county jail in downtown Greensboro, most of the commissioners say it’s a hard sell.
But proponents said it could be the next Research Triangle Park and bring in $6.5 billion in private investment and nearly 5,400 jobs over the next 20 years.
“We need those jobs right now,” said Commissioner Linda Shaw, the lone commissioner to strongly back Project Haystack. “I just hope that before we got up at arms we’d see where this is going.”
Project Haystack would require roughly $103 million from the governments of Guilford and Alamance counties and the cities of Greensboro, Burlington and possibly Gibsonville — as well as the state — to see it through.
Everyone agrees it would take roughly two years just to run the kind of water and sewer infrastructure to the site that would be needed for the kind of data centers and manufacturing that Project Haystack hopes to attract.
The Guilford County Board of Commissioners recently voted to spend $30,000 to explore an interlocal agreement on the project — a first step toward determining its feasibility.
But, Mike Solomon said, that’s not enough of a signal to the sort of big companies that could populate a new industrial park.
Solomon was a consultant for the region’s economic development group, the Piedmont Triad Partnership, and he is a project manager for Timmons Group, a Richmond, Virginia-based company that provides engineering services to evaluate and plan developments.
He has spoken before the Board of Commissioners on behalf of Project Haystack and said he has been fielding inquiries from large companies interested in the site.
But the reticence of local government makes them nervous, Solomon said.
“They need a commitment,” he said. “They need a sense that all the governmental bodies are on board, the plan is in place, the timetable to meet their needs is appropriate.”
Solomon said he can’t share any names or specifics about those interested companies — with the media or with the commissioners.
That creates a bit of a chicken and egg situation, some commissioners said.
“I’m open-minded to the extent that what I’m hearing makes good common sense and fiscal sense,” Commissioner Jeff Phillips said. “But until I hear some real details, I would be hesitant to commit tens of millions of Guilford County tax dollars.”
Contact Joe Killian at (336) 373-7023, and follow @JoeKillianNR on Twitter.