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'Game-changer' could bring at least 1,750 jobs to Piedmont Triad International Airport
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'Game-changer' could bring at least 1,750 jobs to Piedmont Triad International Airport

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A major and previously undisclosed economic-development project involving an airplane manufacturer, Piedmont Triad International Airport and potentially 1,750 jobs has been fast-tracked by the N.C. General Assembly.

The state House and Senate approved Monday by wide bipartisan margins House Bill 334, a technical correction bill for the state budget.

Bill sponsors added language that would appropriate $106.75 million in Job Development Investment Grant funds for fiscal 2021-22 to “a high-yield project for an airplane manufacturer.”

The project has been identified as “Project Thunderbird” by Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth.

Lambeth said Tuesday that ordinarily the JDIG funding appropriation “would have been in the state budget.”

“But, the dynamics of this is evolving very fast and there should be a major announcement this week or certainly soon.”

The N.C. Commerce Department’s Economic Investment committee is required to approve all JDIG appropriations. The committee is next scheduled to meet Dec. 7.

According to Commerce, a high-yield project involves a company pledging to create at least 1,750 jobs and spend at least $500 million on capital investments.

Such a project qualifies for JDIG grant reimbursing up to 90% of the new personal income withholdings from employees for a period up to 20 years.

Lambeth said the project will be “a game changer for this area and PTI. I am proud to be part of supporting this project in our region.”

The Piedmont Triad Airport Authority said in a statement Tuesday that it “cannot discuss specifics of on-going economic development projects.”

The authority declined to make executive director Kevin Baker available for interviews.

“The airport has attracted the interest of a number of aerospace companies, which the local economic development community is actively pursuing, PTI said.

“The authority greatly appreciates the strong support it has received from the state legislature and the governor’s office, and others, to attract aerospace jobs to the state and region.”

JDIG funding typically is used for projects that have out-of-state competition, either an out-of-state company considering multiple states or a company with an in-state presence considering taking production or moving out of North Carolina.

The bill lists three funding appropriations for infrastructure improvements at PTI:

$56.75 million toward constructing one or more hangers;

$35 million toward roadwork improvements, to be handled by the N.C. transportation Department; and

$15 million toward site work.

The only other detail in HB334 toward the project is the average annual wage would be at $60,000.

The authority has assembled over the past 10 years nearly 1,000 acres “to be ready for continued growth in the aerospace industry.”

“This land, combined with one of the best surface transportation networks in the country, outstanding utility infrastructure, and a long-established talent pipeline, make the airport one of the best locations in the world for the aerospace industry,” the authority said in its statement.

PTI presence

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PTI already has on its campus the FedEx cargo sorting hub, the HondaJet headquarters and production facilities, and the primary U.S. production operations for HAECO Americas.

An N.C. Aviation Division report released in January had 30,015 jobs listed as associated with PTI.

The division’s report on The State of Aviation considers three primary spending categories: direct, indirect (primarily suppliers) and induced (defined as revenue, wages, jobs generated by industry-to-industry transactions, and employee and supplier spending on local goods and services, such as shopping at Hanes Mall).

Negotiations for Project Thunderbird had been kept quiet until the latest version of HB334 was released Monday night.

HB334 resurfaced on Thanksgiving with the reappointment of conference conferees that included Lambeth as head of the House group.

Both chambers received the bill compromise Monday and quickly voted it out of the conference to their respective floors. The House voted 93-9 in favor, while the Senate voted 43-1.

Lambeth said the legislative process is “better positioned” to handle major economic-development projects than it was in 2005 when a special session was needed to approve state incentives for the Dell Inc. desktop-assembly plant in Winston-Salem.

“We have a better team in place who do more behind the scenes work,” Lambeth said. “Lots has been learned from both failures and successes.

“Had we not been in session for so long, we would have had to call a special session to respond this time.”

Part of the speed in which legislators approached HB334 was their effort to address most pending bills before a planned short-term adjournment that began Tuesday.

The Associated Press reported Monday that the legislature will hold no-vote meetings until Dec. 10 — a parliamentary maneuver designed to limit Gov. Roy Cooper’s time to act on legislation to no more than 10 days.

AP reported lawmakers could return starting Dec. 30 for limited purposes, such as veto overrides, votes on last-minute negotiated measures between the two chambers and to address bills that are related to redistricting. These meetings could go into January 2022.

Megasite projects

The PTI project is the second major project announced recently in the Triad. Economic development recruiters have been working on a new project for the Greensboro-Randolph County megasite.

The state budget included up to $320 million in performance-based incentives should a major manufacturer choose to spend more than $1 billion and hire more than 1,750 workers at the megasite.

At least two national publications are reporting the project is likely a new Toyota venture: a massive battery plant for the company’s electric vehicles.

The nearly 1,000-acre aerospace site at PTI is among four megasites being marketed by Piedmont Triad Partnership and Carolina Core that represent a combined 7,200 acres along the U.S. 421 corridor.

The Carolina Core branding is the latest in a long list of attempts over several decades at getting four distinctly different Triad communities to work together for economic development.

“On its own, investing in the airport’s physical infrastructure isn’t a bad thing, as those physical improvements will remain in the community regardless of what happens to the company over time,” said John Quinterno, principal with South by North Strategies Ltd., a Chapel Hill research company specializing in economic and social policy.

“In many ways, that is a potentially reasonable use of public funds to support economic development.”

Quinterno, however, questioned the need for the JDIG package if “the firm would locate in the Triad anyway.”

“Any subsidy provided by the state really is wasted money and represents a transfer of resources that would be available to the public at large for the benefit of one particular private-sector firm.”

Lambeth said Project Thunderbird should be viewed as part of a large Triad and state economic initiative.

“North Carolina is being looked at by a number of companies, and there will be more opportunities in the next year,” Lambeth said.

“A good environment for business, a strong community college system that helps train workers, and infrastructure of roads and airports to move products with a strong environment to raise families is very attractive for companies looking at N.C. right now.”

News & Record report Richard Barron contributed to this article.

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