In less than a week, three Johnston County chambers of commerce and the county Board of Commissioners have thrown their support behind a cargo-container hub locating in Johnston.
Railroad giant CSX proposed such a hub two months ago on land between Selma and Micro, but public enthusiasm quickly turned to a public “no thanks” when some landowners signaled a fight to keep their lands.
But a contingent led by an organized business community is asking CSX not to turn its back on Johnston County. The rail company, meanwhile, has said little since late January, when county commissioners and the governor said the land between Selma and Micro was a no-go.
After last week’s North Carolina primaries, the chambers of commerce in Clayton, Smithfield-Selma and Benson released verbatim statements of support for a CSX hub in Johnston. Wednesday night, county commissioners held a special session to weigh in.
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“We, the Johnston County Board of Commissioners, commit our support for locating an intermodal terminal in Johnston County,” the resolution of support read. “We look forward to the opportunity to bring an intermodal terminal, and its subsequent public benefits, to Johnston County and to the state of North Carolina.”
As it did two months ago when the board pulled its support for the project in Selma, the audience applauded.
Curiously absent from the county’s statement was any mention of CSX by name, though given that $272 million regional railroad projects aren’t commonplace, it wasn’t needed. What the statement did mention, though, was how it wanted land acquired for any hub.
“The Board of Commissioners supports the assemblage and acquisition of the property needed for the terminal construction and operations,” the resolution read. “The Board of Commissioners urges engagement with affected property owners prior to and throughout the process to work toward a beneficial outcome.”
With 450 acres of railroad-accessible land needed for a hub, eminent domain would likely come into play in any deal for CSX. But while the possible taking of land through the courts torpedoed the project’s run at Selma, it’s now seen as the price of progress.
“We would never have anything if we didn’t do that,” said commissioners chairman Tony Braswell said.
“The overwhelming rejection was just too much to overcome,” Braswell said of Selma and Micro landowners saying no to CSX. “There were so many different parcels involved, just too many parcels. If you have 95 percent supporting it, you have a different situation.”
At a Johnston County Association of Chambers meeting earlier in the week, state Reps. Leo Daughtry and J.H. Langdon and Sen. Brent Jackson argued the obstacle of eminent domain shouldn’t derail such an important project for North Carolina.
“As a North Carolina farmer, do I like eminent domain? Pardon my French, but hell no,” Jackson said. “But how many of you have made an omelette without breaking an egg?”
Jackson said North Carolina’s dream of landing an automaker depended on the state landing this hub.
“If we want North Carolina to once again be a manufacturing state, we need this hub,” he said. “Everything east of I-95 needs this hub. The original site was handled wrong, absolutely handled wrong. But Johnston County needs this hub.”
Daughtry, who attended the commissioners’ meeting Wednesday night, said the CSX hub was the most important economic-development project he knew of going on in Johnston County. He said the container hub could provide a “shot in the arm” for a struggling Eastern North Carolina.
“There’s nothing more important for a person than having a good job,” Daughtry said. “If we can do anything to encourage the railroad to locate in our county, we ought to do it.”
At the chamber meeting, Johnston County economic-development director Chris Johnson made his case for the CSX hub. He said North Carolina doesn’t want this hub to be the one that got away.
“Yes, there would be more train traffic if this was built in Johnston County,” Johnson said. “But if this thing settles in South Carolina, we’ll still see more train traffic. Except every time we have to stop and watch the train go by, you’re also watching those jobs going to another state.”
While many in the crowd applauded the commissioners Wednesday night, others wondered what might become of their land. Four Oaks has offered itself to CSX as a viable alternative to Selma, and a collection of neighbors stopped by the board meeting, a couple holding anti-CSX signs.
Rebecca Allen of Four Oaks said she wants anything going forward done in plain sight. “Put something up on the table and show us what’s going on,” she said.
Braswell said after the meeting that he was aware of no specific site information and that the board’s statement did not signal a reversal from its stance two months ago. The meeting, he said, was to show that the board and others supported the project in Johnston County.
Along with vitriol, commissioners found that support in their email in-boxes after their rejection of the Selma site. Among those emails was one from Smithfield accountant Lee Jackson.
“Watch out... golden geese don’t land in the same field very often,” Jackson wrote.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson