In two weeks, CSX’s dream of a $272 million transportation hub in eastern Johnston County evaporated into confusion and ambiguity.
Gov. Pat McCrory’s office and County Commissioners asked CSX to turn its gaze away from the 450 acres it chose between Selma and Micro. In doing so, the elected leaders sided with a vocal group of landowners opposed to selling their land to the railroad company.
In turn, CSX said it was committed to the infrastructure project, but would not specify if that meant in Johnston County or beyond.
On Jan. 14, CSX announced that it would build an intermodal container hub in Johnston County, drawn by the intersection of interstates 95 and 40, its own intersection with Norfolk Southern tracks and the proximity of ports in Wilmington and Morehead City. The container hub would move freight cargo between trains and trucks, and vice versa, to be sent on to their final destinations.
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The company spent three years choosing the Johnston County site from locations all over the Southeast. It pledged to spend $150 million of its own money and seek $100 million more from the state to build the hub.
CSX said the project would create 300 construction jobs, 300 permanent jobs once in operation and possibly 1,500 jobs statewide as companies built up around the hub. In spite of all that promise and planning, it’s possible the project could unravel because no one asked nicely.
Gerald Peedin’s 128 acres are the most CSX wants from any one landowner. The owner of Peedin Farms joined the opposition to CSX but not in an effort to save his farm, which he said could continue in the face of the container hub. The company wants around half of his land, but he said the half CSX wants is either wooded or so soggy he can’t farm it. Peedin said CSX lost him and his land by not contacting him before the company’s Jan. 14 announcement. Instead, it reached out that day with intent to buy his land.
“Their way of approaching me made me think I may not be able to believe them down the road; it brought honesty and integrity into question,” Peedin said. “Usually when someone wants to do something fast, they do it because they don’t want you to learn much more about it.”
This isn’t the first time Peedin’s land has been the target of a major infrastructure project. The proposed path of Dominion Power’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline also cuts through his property, but he said that company sent him a letter early in the process.
“In my case, in our case, we probably passed up a bunch of money [from CSX],” Peedin said. “But we value community more. This is not a rich area, but people respect each other.”
CSX has said the 300 jobs created by the project would pay an average salary of $60,000. Few places in North Carolina could use that kind of employer more than Selma, where the median household income of $23,000 is half the state average.
Selma leaders hope their community still has a chance at the container hub. If CSX does indeed look elsewhere, they said, it would be a regional loss.
“It’s not just a loss for Selma; I feel more and more like it’s a loss for North Carolina and Johnston County,” Selma Mayor Cheryl Oliver said. “I personally want discussions to continue and want to see if we can come up with any creative solutions.”
Oliver blamed CSX’s lack of communication with landowners for how quickly the county soured on the project.
“The approach could have been a lot better,” see said.
Last week, McCrory said the Johnston County site was no longer a viable option, a statement that landowners took as tipping the scales their way. Johnston County Board of Commissioners Chairman Tony Braswell, who is seeking an N.C. House seat, publicly condemned the use of eminent domain by a private company,.
“I’ve never seen such a lose-lose situation in all the years I’ve been in politics,” Braswell said. “We desperately need this project for I-95, but if it’s the wrong place, it’s the wrong place.”
Crystal Gettys, president of the Wayne County Development Alliance, is closely watching the CSX standoff in Johnston County. If the company packs up and leaves the state, Eastern North Carolina would especially miss out, she said.
“It would be a shame if North Carolina lost the project to another state, but it’s got to be a good decision for everyone involved,” she said. “As a region, keeping it in Eastern North Carolina, many of the surrounding counties would benefit from it. It would be a great draw if everything lined up correctly.”
And if things dissolve in Johnston, she wants Wayne County to get a chance.
“We’d love to be considered,” Gettys said.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdjackson