Politics & Government

USDA won’t relocate agencies to the Triangle. Hundreds of jobs heading west instead.

North Carolina was considered for relocation of two USDA offices

Sonny Perdue, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, talked about North Carolina's chances to land two USDA office relocations during a visit to Raleigh on June 4, 2019.
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Sonny Perdue, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, talked about North Carolina's chances to land two USDA office relocations during a visit to Raleigh on June 4, 2019.

The Triangle will not be the new home to two U.S. Department of Agriculture research agencies, losing out to the Kansas City area, the USDA announced Thursday morning.

The Triangle was one of three finalists for the relocation of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service, moves that have been met with resistance from current workers and some Democrats in the U.S. House.

Wake County, Durham County and Research Triangle Park were applicants for the relocation. Indiana was also a finalist.

It is the second time in less than a year that the area has been a finalist, but not the winner, for a federal project. In July, Austin, Texas was picked as the new home of the U.S. Army’s Futures Command Center, an Army headquarters assigned the development of new missiles, cannons, tanks and aircraft for modern warfare.

Amazon also passed on Raleigh, one of 20 finalists, when it picked Washington, D.C. and New York as locations for its second headquarters.

“We’re disappointed,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, in an interview Thursday. “... I’m going to take a look at the scoring and make sure it was arrived at because it was the best business decision and not something that was necessarily influenced by politics.”

He said he did a similar review after the U.S. Army Futures Command Center decision.

“Following a rigorous site selection process, the Kansas City Region provides a win win – maximizing our mission function by putting taxpayer savings into programmatic outputs and providing affordability, easy commutes, and extraordinary living for our employees,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement.

“The Kansas City Region has proven itself to be hub for all things agriculture and is a booming city in America’s heartland. There is already a significant presence of USDA and federal government employees in the region, including the Kansas City ‘Ag Bank’ Federal Reserve. This agriculture talent pool, in addition to multiple land-grant and research universities within driving distance, provides access to a stable labor force for the future.”

Perdue visited North Carolina last week. A former Georgia governor who worked as a veterinarian in Wake County in the 1970s, Perdue said he tried to distance himself from the decision so as to not “put my thumb on the scale.”

“Obviously, you all who live here know what makes this area attractive. You have a great quality of life; you’ve got the laborshed from the Research Triangle Park; you’ve got the universities and academics here and it is just a great place to live. Those are the qualities we are looking for,” Perdue said during his visit.

But it was not enough to win the research agencies from the Kansas City region, which sits on the Kansas and Missouri border and included applicants and support from both states. Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, a Republican, tweeted a photo of him meeting with Perdue on Wednesday, an indication that Kansas City was a likely winner.

Moran released a statement on Thursday: “After months of advocating to Secretary Perdue that NIFA and ERS ought to be relocated to the Kansas City area, I’m thrilled that USDA has selected Kansas City to house these critical research agencies.

“It is always positive when our government can operate outside of Washington and closer to the people it serves, and I am certain that the decision to relocate NIFA and ERS to Kansas City is a good one,” Moran said.

The cost of housing in Kansas City, Missouri is considerably less than in Raleigh, according to several online calculators including Zillow. One group recently named Kansas City the No. 2 city in terms of affordability, according to the Kansas City Star. Durham was No. 5 on the list. Quality of life was one of the criteria used by the USDA, a category that included residential housing costs.

State and local governments also offered $26 million in incentives for the two agencies to move to Kansas City. It wasn’t immediately clear what sort of incentive package North Carolina offered the USDA, and the state’s Commerce Department declined to reveal information on the bid.

NIFA “provides leadership and funding for programs that advance agriculture-related sciences,” according to its website. NIFA has 350 employees and a budget of more than $1.5 billion, much of which goes to research and education. Its mission is to “(i)nvest in and advance agricultural research, education, and extension to solve societal challenges.”

At NIFA, “they underwrite a bulk of the competitively funded research that occurs here at N.C. State in the plant sciences,” Steve Lommel, associate dean for research at N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said earlier this year in an interview.

ERS’ mission is “to anticipate trends and emerging issues in agriculture, food, the environment, and rural America and to conduct high-quality, objective economic research to inform and enhance public and private decision making,” according to its website. ERS employs more than 250 economists and social scientists and about 100 information technology and communications specialists, per its website.

Many employees at the agencies are opposed to a move from Washington. NIFA workers voted overwhelmingly in recent days to join a union with ERS employees who voted last month, The Washington Post reported.

“Within the agency, 99% say that this is terrible. It is going to destroy the agency, destroy science, wreck families and wreck homes,” Laura Dodson, an economist at the ERS, told The N&O in a phone interview last week.

Perdue said in Raleigh that he was aware of the “concern” and acknowledged that some have been “very vocal” about their opposition to any move.

In his statement Thursday, he said the move to Kansas City “will allow ERS and NIFA to increase efficiencies and effectiveness and bring important resources and manpower closer to all of our customers.”

The N.C. Commerce Department, which handles economic recruitment in the state, said that while the decision was disappointing, being a finalist validated the Triangle as a hub for agriculture business.

“Although we’re disappointed not to be their final choice, North Carolina’s position as a finalist will help us attract other projects in the future,” Commerce spokeswoman Beth Gargan said in an email. “... Such recognition will boost our efforts to recruit new players to our state’s agriculture and agribusiness industry, which already has a nearly $92 billion annual economic impact and employs 728,000 people.”

McClatchyDC reporter Bryan Lowry contributed to this report.

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.
Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.