Garner Cleveland Record

Garner fine-tuning ConAgra marketing

Nearly a year after finishing clean-up and shifting into full-court-press-mode in marketing the former ConAgra site, the Garner has turned a few heads as it hopes to land its white whale: capital investment in advanced industry and high-paying jobs.

Outsiders have remarked that the site has an unique combination of factors that will serve the town well as it attempts to find a dance partner. Garner has indicated it’s willing to offer further incentive in its quest to achieve its goals with the property: facilitating a large capital investment and a substantial number of high-paying jobs. Even with the advantages, the kind of deal the town hopes to land spawns competition; the game hunted is being sought by cities around the globe.

Town Economic Director Tony Beasley, in a video promoting the site, notes that the site is owned by a “willing and aggressive nonprofit economic development corporation with only three board members, allowing for quick decisions and unique pricing opportunities.”

The site’s positives range from size (about 100 acres), location (on I-40), already-secured tax breaks (Brownfield agreement), water and sewer credits and pre-built infrastructure including water-treatment capacity.

“If you just go down the list on kind of the property piece, it’s fabulous,” said Bill Bullock, who leads industrial recruiting for the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

Beasley also said the land could be bought for below market value and that the town was willing to provide incentives to the right buyer with the right intentions. The town is seeking some advanced industry such as biotechnology or pharmaceutical production. The site could host multiple tenants as well, taking advantaged of increasing trends of synergy between a variety of tech companies.

During the Garner Chamber of Commerce’s Connect Conference, Bullock compared the project to the lead-up to Holly Springs landing Novartis in 2006. The Swiss company built a vaccine production facility that would add $225 million to the tax base in 2009, during the middle of a recession. That alone added about 12 percent to the town’s 2008 tax base. Tens of millions are still being spent upgrading the facility and hundreds are employed there.

It’s unclear where the town is in the negotiating process and when an announcement may be made. The courting process could take a matter of years, Beasley cautioned last fall. The companies considering the property, according to the Garner Economic Development Corporation leader Bruce Andrews, try not to make their interest well-known.

“Most of them are very secretive,” Andrews said. “It’s unbelievable what people will do to cover their identities and keep things a secret (as companies shop for properties).”

Bullock said Holly Springs leaders and the community at large keyed that effort, providing drive, vision, readiness and smart marketing to the process of luring the company.

“It’s a lot of the things I see Garner doing right now,”Bullock said.

The Holly Springs model

It takes more than luck and enthusiasm: Holly Springs borrowed $8.3 million to buy 167 acres of land to host the company, and another $12 million on infrastructure upgrades.The county and state pitched in to bring the full incentive package to $40 million.

ConAgra had been a significant part of Garner’s tax base itself, but that evaporated in 2009 when an explosion ripped through the factory, killing three. The company abandoned the Slim Jim plant and gave the property, along with a $2.5 million gift, to the town. But the revenue loss of about a quarter million per year from the then-$55 million property amidst a recession proved tough to swallow. The town tore down most of the remaining structures and helped clean up the site which had various contamination issues from industrial chemicals and the explosion.

Regarding incentives, some that Garner is offering come pre-installed. The town owns the land and would need fewer infrastructure upgrades than Holly Springs given proximity to a major highway. And incentives already in place, such as utilities and a half-million gallons of water treatment capacity, add unique advantages. Bullock said he didn’t know of another site that offered ready-to-use treatment, which prepares chemical byproducts suitable to be disposed of in the water and sewer system.

There is also an already-executed brownfield agreement, a state designation that allows tax incentives amounting to a roughly 50 percent property tax discount over the first five years to encourage redevelopment of existing industrial sites rather than contaminate undeveloped land.

Meanwhile, in the global fight for business, Andrews said the Triangle offered a livability standard second to none along with its reputation of a university research center surrounded by an educated population. He said one company he knew of, declining to name it, surveyed 200 families it moved to the area from up north about two years afterward.

“You know how many were unhappy? Two. Two out of 200,” Andrews said. “And one of those couples had to move back up north because their elderly parents were critically ill.”

Bullock said his organization should be helping market the site and refining its message and search. Asked about any weaknesses of the site, Bullock paused a few seconds.

“I don’t really know. And I don’t mean to say that because I’m standing here (at a Garner event),” he said. “Every site is different. There are other pieces of property. Are any of them this far along? I think it’s pretty unique.”