Big employer fishes for perks

Incentives at issue as N.C. vies for a company that could gin up 1,500 jobs.

Staff WriterAugust 31, 2011 

North Carolina is among three states in the running for an economic development project that could bring as many as 1,500 jobs to an area just west of Wilmington.

But winning the project could require the state lawmakers to pass a targeted incentives package for the company.

"I believe we're facing some competition from maybe two other states, and we don't know what that competition is right now," said Rep. Dewey Hill, a Democrat who represents Brunswick and Columbus counties. "This is a real must for us if we can afford it."

The project is likely to rekindle the debate over corporate incentives, particularly ones that require special legislation. In the past, the state has crafted similar legislation for Google, Dell and tire makers Goodyear and Bridge stone.

"They've been doing it, and it's just fundamentally wrong to pick one company and create a set of laws or rules that in essence put the public's money into that one company," said Bob Orr, executive director of the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law in Raleigh and a longtime critic of the state's incentives policy.

Lawmakers will reconvene next month for a week to debate constitutional amendments but could take up other issues, including incentives.

"Instead of handing them a bunch of cash, I think it's going to be tax credits that they have to earn," Hill said.

The name of the company hasn't been disclosed. It has been given the codename Project Soccer by economic development officials.

Hill said he thinks the two other states being considered are Louisiana and South Carolina. He wouldn't put a number on the amount of incentives the company is seeking.

"There's all kinds of rumors out there what they're looking for," he said.

Hill, along with Sen. Bill Rabon, a Republican who also represents Brunswick and Columbus counties, has been in discussions with Department of Commerce officials about Project Soccer.

Commerce officials won't comment on any potential projects, spokesman Tim Crowley said.

Hill said the company is considering a 400-acre site next to the Mid-Atlantic Logistics Center. The center is in Brunswick County near the intersection of U.S. 74 and U.S. 76 along the Columbus County line.

The unemployment rate in Columbus County was 13.1 percent in July, well above the state rate of 10.3 percent. Brunswick's jobless rate was 10.3 percent in July.

Project Soccer would be a combination of distribution, logistics, manufacturing and assembly jobs, said Steve Yost, director of North Carolina's Southeast, an economic development agency that serves the region.

"As I understand it, they are very good jobs," said Yost, who has not been actively involved in recruiting the company.

In recent years, lawmakers have approved a number of incentive grants tailored to specific corporations.

Dell was awarded a $280 million package of state and local aid in 2004 to build a computer plant in Winston-Salem. The project became a symbol for critics of incentives when the computer maker announced it would close the factory just four years after it opened.

Google won tax breaks and grants potentially worth as much as $260 million in 2006 to put a facility in Lenoir.

And in 2007, state lawmakers approved a measure that gave as much as $60 million to Goodyear Tire & Rubber and Bridgestone Firestone. The money was to help the companies expand existing plants in Fayetteville and Wilson that each employ thousands of people.

david.bracken@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4548

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