Before CSX turns its back on Johnston County, and possibly North Carolina, Four Oaks has something to say.
In the weeks since the political tide turned against CSX and its plan to build a container hub between Selma and Micro, Four Oaks Mayor Linwood Parker has been adding up acres in his town. His aim is to round up enough agreeable landowners to attract a second glance from the railroad company.
CSX needs 450 acres near major rail lines and highways. While Selma is home to the intersection of CSX’s north-south lines and Norfolk Southern’s east-west tracks, Four Oaks argues it’s closer to the intersection of interstates 40 and 95.
When Johnston County Economic Development Director Chris Johnson put out a call for alternative sites, Parker stepped up with Four Oaks. The mayor proposed land between Old School Road and U.S. 301 along the CSX line.
Parker said he doesn’t know if CSX is even aware of the land in Four Oaks, and he stresses that the town has offered nothing formal. He just wants to have a conversation.
“Nobody knows what’s going on at this point except the railroad,” Parker said. “I’m just trying to prepare the community so if the railroad decides to take a look at us, we’re ready to have a civil conversation.”
Parker has mailed two letters to landowners and held one meeting, three weeks ago, as Gov. Pat McCrory was saying the Selma-area site wasn’t viable.
“I felt the property owners should be involved in the talks so it’s not just someone saying they’re going to be bringing a railroad hub there,” Parker said. “I wanted to make sure everyone is aware so we don’t have a mix-up.”
At that meeting, Parker asked landowners to say, in writing, whether they wanted to sell and how much they wanted for their land. He said he has not personally talked to the railroad,but that he’s hopeful Four Oaks can gain some traction.
Parker thinks the proposed CSX hub, a $272 million container yard that would handle a significant portion the Southeast’s train, truck and ship freight, would become a center of the new economy.
“Years ago, everyone shopped downtown, before the malls were opened and everyone started shopping there, leaving the downtowns empty,” Parker said. “Now, shopping is done on the Internet. The name of the game is logistics, and this hub will be a centerpiece for that. Four Oaks could be the center for logistics in three states.”
In 2008, Four Oaks started piecing together for land what became a 250-acre business park on the east side of Interstate 95. Medical-device maker Becton Dickinson opened a distribution center there in 2009, leaving 184 acres for prospective tenants.
A CSX container hub could help bring companies to those acres, Parker said. “The day (CSX) made the initial announcement about the hub coming to Selma, we got a call from a company wanting to be close to the hub,” he said.
A container hub in Four Oaks does enjoy some landowner support.
Jerry Durham farms land where the hub could go. He said he could easily sell nearly 30 acres without encroaching on his farming operation.
“We are very much open to it,” Durham said. “Personally I think it would be a good thing.”
Not everyone agrees. Aware of the idea, one landowner has two signs along Parkertown Road – one reading “Land Not or Sale” and another with a line through “CSX Hub.”
Tom Price owns 200 acres of Four Oaks-area farmland – 100 acres on one side of the CSX line and 100 acres on the other. The 81-year-old isn’t lining up to sell his acres to CSX.
“I like the land, I like the looks of it; I have a commitment from one of my sons that the land will not be developed except to build houses for his children,” Price said. “I don’t have any land for sale. If [CSX] comes to this area, they can take it through eminent domain, but I’m going to take it all the way through the process.”
Looking north toward Selma, Price says mistakes were made there. He thinks people were opposed less to the container hub than to eminent domain, or the forced forfeiture of their land.
Sometimes, though, eminent domain is the cost of progress, Price said. “Interstate 95 would never have been built without eminent domain,” he said.
Based on the neighborhood meeting he attended, Durham estimates that most property owners support trying to lure CSX to Four Oaks. And he thinks Parker’s approach is the difference between Four Oaks and Selma.
“The way this was handled, it gets people talking and thinking about the idea,” Durham said. “It was not just sprung on us.”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdjackson