Real Deals

Real Deals: Garner has high hopes for ConAgra site

dbracken@newsobserver.comDecember 11, 2013 

— Can a commercial real estate deal transform a town that already has more than 25,000 residents?

Garner officials are certainly hoping so, based on their aspirations for the former ConAgra site along Interstate 40. Officials on Wednesday held what they called an “open house” to drum up interest in redeveloping the 98-acre site. Among the attendees were several commercial real estate brokers, including executives from Highwoods Properties and NAI Carolantic.

The event kicked off a new effort by the town to market the property to companies and site selection firms. It’s been nearly 4-1/2 years since an explosion at the plant killed three workers and injured 38 others.

ConAgra donated the land to the town after it decided to shut down the plant. The buildings have since been demolished, and Garner officials have spent recent months taking steps to make the site more attractive to potential tenants.

They’ve completed two environmental studies and gotten a brownfield agreement from the state that protects future owners or tenants from any liability. On Wednesday, three possible redevelopment plans showed the property being divided into three tracts featuring office buildings and research and advanced manufacturing facilities.

Sizable investment wanted

The question now is whether can land the sort of company they desire. Officials say they want a project that would create about 440 jobs – the same number of people employed at the plant at the time of the explosion – that pay near or above the average Wake County annual wage of about $46,000.

They’d also like to see a sizable investment that would add roughly $55 million to the tax base. The town has already turned down offers to have the property turned into a warehouse or concrete plant, said Tony Beasley, Garner’s economic development director.

“They wouldn’t have met any of our goals,” he said. “No major investment, low-paying jobs.”

Two developers pitched the ConAgra site as the location for a new state Department of Health and Human Services campus. But that project, initiated under former Gov. Bev Perdue’s administration, has not moved forward under Gov. Pat McCrory.

Beasley said Garner plans to target companies involved in life sciences and medical manufacturing. Perhaps the best example of what Garner hopes to attract is Novartis’ vaccine plant in Holly Springs, a massive capital investment that has also created plenty of high-paying jobs.

On par with Scotty

The ConAgra land is now owned by the Garner Economic Development Corp. Beasley said the GEDC isn’t interested in selling the land without guarantees about how it would be developed.

Garner officials insist they will be patient and wait as long as necessary to find a project that is the right fit for both the property and the town.

The GEDC is not hiring a broker to market the property but will work out commission agreements with those that bring deals to it.

“The GEDC will take care of the brokers,” Beasley ensured attendees Wednesday.

As for where successfully redeveloping the ConAgra site would rank, Mayor Ronnie Williams put it in context. He said the town’s two most significant events in recent years were Scotty McCreery winning “American Idol” and Garner being named an All-American city last summer.

“Now, if this property can get sold and developed, that would be No. 3 on my list,” Williams said.

Bracken: 919-829-4548 or dbracken@newsobserver.com; Twitter: @brackendavid

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