Johnston County

CSX picks Rocky Mount for planned $272M rail hub

While opposition from Johnston County landowners stalled a proposed CSX container hub, Rocky Mount economic development officials quietly pieced together 700 acres willing to take on the project. For that reason, the $272 million CSX rail hub once destined for Johnston County will instead go 50 miles north to Rocky Mount.

Gov. Pat McCrory and other state officials announced the move Tuesday morning at N.C. Wesleyan College, ending a tumultuous six months that pitted family farms against the jobs and tax revenue the project promised and threatened to cost North Carolina the project altogether.

State officials approved $122.1 million in state financial incentives for the CSX project, including $110 million in performance incentives from the N.C. Department of Transportation, $7.8 million in intermodal tax credits and $4.3 million in Job Development Investment Grants, or JDIGs. To receive the full extent of incentives, CSX must meet hiring goals and invest $160 million in the facility by Dec. 31, 2024. It also must keep the 876 jobs it already has in the state.

The regional container hub, called the Carolina Connector, will route and reroute freight from trucks and trains to final destinations up and down the East Coast and across the country. It’s expected to bring 149 jobs to the Rocky Mount area, which has the second-highest unemployment rate in the state. The jobs will pay an average wage of $64,047.

“We were thrilled in our area when we thought the project was going to Johnston County,” said Norris Tolson, CEO of Carolinas Gateway Partnership. His group put together purchasing options for the land CSX picked for their site. “Now that it’s in our area, we believe it will be very, very beneficial, not just to the twin counties (Edgecombe and Nash), but as a very good regional project. We see it as a statewide project that will help us connect east and west better than we do right now.”

Since late January, Tolson’s office has been signing purchasing options with willing landowners along CSX’s north-south main line. He said the group came up with 710 acres, of which CSX will use between 500 and 550 acres. The facility will go east of N.C. Wesleyan not far from the Interstate 95 corridor, between College Road and Old Battleboro Road. CSX said the likely footprint of the facility will impact 20 parcels, with all options already secured.

“In this case, we told landowners, ‘We are trying to put together an assemblage of land for a very large industrial client who needs to be close to the railroad,’” Tolson said.

Josie Davis is one of those landowners. She was first approached in April about selling but was never told who the buyer would be or how her land would be used. College Road runs through nearly 40 acres of her great-grandfather’s farm, but while she didn’t know who was buying the land, she said she wanted to help be part of something that might reverse the downward economic trend of Rocky Mount.

“If it’s going to help Edgecombe’s economy, yes, I’m willing to sell,” Davis said. “The resources are really needed to enhance the lifestyle of all the people in this area. There aren’t a lot of jobs available.”

According to officials, CSX was also considering competing locations in South Carolina and Virginia. State incentives are contingent on a corporation selecting North Carolina over competing sites.

The project was originally planned for 450 acres between Selma and Micro, in the eastern, more rural side of Johnston, a county that has experienced most of its rapid suburban growth along its western border with Wake County.

CSX and Department of Transportation officials say it will unclog interstates by removing trucks and more efficiently deliver goods and materials and say it could help the state land large manufacturers, offering an economic life raft to Eastern North Carolina.

“The Carolina Connector will be a game-changer for our state’s economy, supporting North Carolina’s agriculture, ports and position as the Southeast’s No. 1 state for manufacturing jobs,” McCrory said in a statement Tuesday.

Prior to the project’s announcement in January, no one consulted the affected Johnston County property owners, and CSX immediately ran into opposition as property owners pledged not to sell, claiming threats of eminent domain from the railroad spiked early negotiations. Within weeks, the Selma site lost support from the Johnston County Board of Commissioners, and McCrory declared it nonviable. Economic development directors in Goldsboro, Rocky Mount and South Carolina all raised their hands as willing to bring the project to their communities.

The process seemed to repeat itself in Four Oaks, around a dozen miles south on I-95 from Selma. Mayor Linwood Parker invited CSX to consider a couple of large swaths of land in his town, but once again the project ran into vocal opposition from property owners and residents. Last week, Parker declared at a council meeting that CSX had moved on from Four Oaks.

“I would a whole lot rather been part of the process of trying to create jobs in my community,” Parker said. “To not have been part of this process would have meant our community was not desirable. That we were asked means there will be somebody else.”

Four Oaks farmer Randy Johnson’s land would have likely been taken if CSX came to town, but he said he’s finally breathing easy after the Rocky Mount announcement.

“I’m excited it didn’t come to Four Oaks,” Johnson said. “My neighbors always determined what I was going to do. If they thought this was a good thing, I might have thought about it. We’re a community; our community is just as important as any other community.”

Chris Johnson, Johnston County’s economic development director, said he’s disappointed a deal couldn’t be worked out in Johnston, but he believes the county will still benefit from the project.

“Obviously, being a competitive person, you’d like to see this in your own backyard,” Johnson said. “But this project has always been about the I-95 corridor and counties east of that than just Johnston. I’m excited it’s still in North Carolina. There will still be a benefit for Johnston, though maybe not as fast as we’d like. We’re still a good spot for warehouse distribution and manufacturing.”

Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, ext. 104