Guilford commissioners intrigued but not jumping at new prison farm proposal

Posted: Saturday, November 7, 2015 8:00 pm

GREENSBORO — Eddie Bridges didn’t create much of a stir when he stepped up to the microphone.

His rumpled short-sleeve shirt, barely-combed gray hair and country twang are his camouflage.

Last Thursday, when Bridges read two pages in the three minutes allotted to any citizen, the Guilford County commissioners watched politely and asked no questions.

Those who know Eddie Bridges can bet the commissioners were using their poker faces.

Bridges had quietly laid a high-stakes challenge on the table.

He wants the commissioners to donate the 806-acre Guilford County Prison Farm to the North Carolina Wildlife Habitat Foundation. In three minutes, Bridges, who is the foundation’s executive director, laid out his vision for a farm to attract research and agribusiness that could be an economic driver for the region.

“We think we can take this historic prison farm that was built and operated very effectively for decades to punish many folks over the years and methodically transform a punitive facility into a place that rewards people, investments and innovators and draws the most desirable populations to our region like a giant magnet,” he said.

After the meeting, commissioners played it cool.

But they know Bridges is one of the nation’s most powerful conservationists.

And he’s just warming up.

Data farming

The Guilford County Prison Farm was once a place where inmates learned marketable skills that could boost their chances of finding jobs at the end of their sentences.

But as costs of running the programs grew, Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes reduced its use. Earlier this year, the commissioners voted to shut down farming there and lease the land to area farmers and ranchers.

As that storyline played out, developers and some commissioners mounted an effort to turn the farm into a business park.

In November 2013, commissioners considered a proposal called Project Haystack — a 3-square-mile campus of data centers and advanced manufacturing. Under that proposal, the county would donate at least 600 acres of the farm and spend $15 million on additional land to create a 2,000-acre site that would be turned over to private investors.

Proponents said the land sits atop one of the largest fiber-optic data transmission lines on the East Coast, making it ideal for data center development.

Studies were done, and potential investors pitched other ideas for the land. But proponents of the project rotated off the board, and the idea faded.

All the while, local farm conservation activists and neighbors of the farm spoke against development.

Haystack’s original proponents, who discovered the site’s merits as the Piedmont Triad Partnership economic development group was scouting for an automotive megasite, still believe this land is a jewel for development.

The chance for development resurfaced in September, when the commissioners were approached about a deal to sell to Burlington the 111 acres of the farm that lie in Alamance County for a German aircraft parts maker that was considering the site.

The company decided not to locate there, and the county stopped any negotiations with public officials and economic developers in Alamance.

A new idea

But the prospect of the sale caught Bridges’ eye. He has worked for decades to find ways to buy and preserve the state’s wild and undeveloped lands for outdoor recreation and wildlife protection.

On Oct. 1, he stepped up to the commissioners’ lectern and proposed that they donate the land to the Wildlife Habitat Foundation to be cultivated as a recreational and educational area that preserves wildlife and open space.

It was Bridges’ way of getting the commissioners’ attention.

At that meeting, members informally agreed to set aside time at a future meeting for an in-depth discussion of the farm’s future.

Original proponents of Haystack jumped to criticize Bridges’ request and say the land remains a major opportunity for regional growth.

But Bridges wasn’t finished.

On Thursday, he offered a much more elaborate plan for the farm, in which the county would donate the land to the foundation, which has been in touch with “several large entities, businesses and interested parties” that might want to turn the farm into an agricultural center for business and academic research.

This land could be used to expand sustainable farming methods for the area and to serve as a place for Elon University to expand its biology studies that are confined to a 5-acre farm near the school.

Should the commissioners choose not to donate the land, Bridges could no doubt take the next step and offer to buy the land.

Don’t count out Bridges

Bridges has won multiple national awards for his conservation efforts, including Field & Stream magazine’s “Hero of Conservation.”

The board of his low-profile foundation is loaded with wealthy and influential conservation advocates. Beyond the board, Bridges counts among his friends artist Bob Timberlake, who has donated paintings to wildlife causes, and Richard Childress, the NASCAR racing legend who is an avid hunter.

Some commissioners said Friday that they won’t be pushed into any course of action until they’ve had thorough discussions and listened to all ideas that come forth.

The top priority, they say, is making a decision that benefits taxpayers.

Commissioner Alan Branson, who represents the area, grew up near the farm and has a special regard for the role it plays in the county’s rural character. He is not against development, but he always has questioned why a few people have pushed so hard to develop the Haystack project.

Nearby Elon University certainly is interested in using the property, but Branson is not certain Bridges’ plan would attract N.C. A&T’s agriculture program because the university has said in recent years moving equipment to the farm is difficult. And N.C. State would likely be short on money to expand into this area, he said.

But Branson knows Bridges too well to count him out.

“There’s a lot of power there,” Branson said. “If you were going to make something happen, he could reach out to Bob Timberlake, Richard Childress. He has a tremendous list of players in the area. There would be a lot of money available.”

Much to consider

Commissioners Vice Chairman Jeff Phillips said the county has no definitive price for the land. Negotiations for the 111-acre parcel may have yielded a different price than the kind of public-service project Bridges has outlined.

County officials say the land is worth a minimum of $4,300 per acre in tax value, Phillips said, but comparable properties sell for well over $7,000, and Phillips believes the 111 acres could have sold for much more per acre.

“Let’s consider that fact and whether a sale price for that purpose should be different,” Phillips said. “That would be an interesting conversation to see how our board would feel about a reduced price.”

But nothing is likely to happen quickly, he added. “While I certainly respect Mr. Bridges’ suggestions for how to best utilize the prison farm properly, before we make a decision we have to be open to any and all options that may surface over time,” Phillips said.

Bridges asked the commissioners for a special meeting with his group in January to further explain the proposal and requested that the board hold off on making any decision about the property until March 31.

Phillips wasn’t so supportive of tabling action on the property.

That could shut the door on other ideas that might offer completely different uses for the land. Phillips says simply that the board has taken years to make a decision on the farm’s fate, and there’s no pressure to do so now.

Said Commissioner Justin Conrad: “He’d like for us to take that property off the table. You can’t close the door until you know what’s behind it. This is county property, and you can’t (predict whether) somebody comes in December, and maybe it would be a group palatable to Mr. Bridges and to the county and to the neighbors. Who knows?”

But, he added, “I personally don’t know of anything else that is potentially in discussion and play.”

Said Phillips: “Since there’s no other front-burner alternative that’s brewing right now, that could be an advantage for the proposal Mr. Bridges is offering. We want to be certainly open and reasonable to consideration to the group that Mr. Bridges is representing or any other group that may surface in the coming months or years.”

The future of anything like Haystack seems like a remote and impossibly complex possibility for now, Phillips said.

“I also respect the individuals who suggest that there’s opportunities for corporate development, but in every way I’ve looked at it and the majority of the board has seen it unfold, we can’t see a way to it,” he said.

But, he added, it’s also a good rule to “never say never.”

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