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Megasite backers get $50M pledge

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After years of secret planning and open dreaming, the people who want to recruit a major car manufacturer to North Carolina got a windfall of good news Thursday when a nonprofit foundation pledged $50 million toward their quest.

The money, which would be used to develop one site of an automaker’s choice and provide worker training, allows North Carolina to jump over steps that can be costly and slow.

In a business where the average factory site costs $100 million to develop, a $50 million gift can make the difference between success and failure.

It’s good news for the people in Randolph County who are close to assembling enough acreage to attract an automaker.

And it also shows auto companies that North Carolina is dead serious about competing for their business, said Dan Gerlach, the president of the Golden Leaf Foundation, whose board unanimously approved the pledge on Thursday.

“There are a lot of things you have to do,” Gerlach said. “The major things are provide a physical site and prepare the human capital. That is front-end money and that’s where the money’s going to go.”

North Carolina has been longing for an auto factory because it is one of the only states in the Southeast without one. With roughly 1,000 to 1,200 employees, auto factories often attract suppliers that can add thousands of related jobs.

Reports and rumors suggest that two or three car companies have been prospecting the state for sites to build North American factories, especially Volvo, according to the Financial Times, a British newspaper.

Golden Leaf’s offer is simple: An auto company evaluates the state’s sites, including two in the Triad, and picks one. Golden Leaf will provide money to add utilities or other development requirements and build a worker-training school for the company.

Today’s automakers expect states to offer free land developed to their specifications, and Golden Leaf’s offer removes uncertainty about North Carolina.

Gerlach said the money pledged by Golden Leaf is not for land acquisition.

But it will be there to help local governments and other groups that already have land in place.

“What we’re trying to do is help to reduce the up-front costs that state or local government would have to spend to develop a site and this would go a long way toward doing that,” he said.

For economic developers in Randolph County, it means they won’t have to worry about finding money to develop the land once it’s assembled.

The Greensboro-Liberty Megasite, at the northeast corner of Randolph County and just south of Guilford County, is a project by the Piedmont Triad Partnership, a regional economic development organization which controls most of the land through options to buy.

The partnership got some good news this week when the Randolph County commissioners voted to spend $4.2 million to buy 255 acres in the planned megasite. It is the first public money to be spent, bringing to life a project that was all but forgotten for much of 2014.

Golden Leaf’s offer also enhances the prospects for a megasite just south of the Greensboro-Liberty site: the 1,800-acre Chatham-Siler City Advanced Manufacturing Site.

For Gerlach, Golden Leaf is living up to its economic development charter by preparing the state for a great opportunity.

The Golden Leaf Foundation is a nonprofit organization established in 1999 by the General Assembly to help North Carolina’s struggling economy.

This $50 million represents a year and a half of the group’s current grant budget.

“There’s a window for this when they’re going to be making their decisions and we want to take advantage of that window,” Gerlach said.

Recruiting a car company could be especially tough for North Carolina, some experts say, because the state has never been successful with incentive packages that don’t match those offered by such states as South Carolina, which lured BMW in the early 1990s.

Golden Leaf’s stake is a high-profile lure not only for a car company but for state legislators, who may be more likely to approve hundreds of millions in tax incentives for a project that is being built with significant private contributions.

Golden Leaf’s move is “a monumental step for recruiting an auto plant,” said David Powell, who is directing the Piedmont Triad Partnership’s effort to create the Randolph site. “It sends signals all throughout the auto industry that we’re really serious about this.”

Contact Richard M. Barron at (336) 373-7371, and follow @BarronBizNR on Twitter.

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