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Is there new life in the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite? Well, that depends.
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Is there new life in the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite? Well, that depends.

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GREENSBORO — It has been nearly four years since a partnership of Toyota and Mazda passed over the Triad to choose Alabama for a planned auto plant.

Since then, the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite, the region’s premiere industrial site aimed at recruiting a car manufacturer, has remained largely out of the spotlight.

But behind the scenes, legislators and economic development recruiters have been working on a new project that could equal or surpass the Toyota-Mazda deal.

Just this week, Gov. Roy Cooper signed a state budget that includes up to $320 million in economic development incentives should a major manufacturer choose to spend more than $1 billion and hire more than 1,750 workers at the megasite.

And now, two national publications are reporting that company is likely a new Toyota venture: a massive battery plant for the company’s electric vehicles.

Bloomberg reported Friday that the company is planning to invest “billions of dollars” outside Greensboro at the 1,800-acre plot located in Randolph County. According to Bloomberg, people who declined to be identified said Toyota would partner with Panasonic Corp. in the new venture.

“No formal commitment has been made and the plan could still evolve,” Bloomberg wrote.

Automotive News, a trade publication, also reported the story, but spokespeople from Toyota and Panasonic would not confirm the report.

Locally, senior economic developers declined to talk about the possibility to the News & Record.

Brent Christensen, the president and CEO of the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce and one of the region’s lead recruiters, said he couldn’t answer questions about prospects at the megasite. Likewise, Loren Hill, the Piedmont Triad Partnership’s economic development director, referred questions to Christensen and Randolph County officials.

N.C. Rep. Jon Hardister, a Guilford County Republican and the House majority whip, said the appropriation for the megasite is designed to make the state “nimble” should a major prospect consider the Triad.

However, he declined to say if Toyota is considering the site or whether a decision by any company is imminent.

“I think the legislature wants to be nimble and we want to have incentives in place,” Hardister said, should a company expect swift action.

That would be more efficient, he explained, than rallying the General Assembly for a special session to consider a massive incentives package.

“The state legislature tends to not be in conversations with prospective companies,” Hardister said. He added: “I’m hopeful that there is a prospective company.”

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The state budget incentive would be triggered in two phases, should a company like Toyota choose the megasite.

First, the company would receive up to $135 million in incentives for any “transformative” project worth at least $1 billion and having at least 1,750 employees. That money would be spent by the state Department of Transportation for roads and other projects needed to get the site ready for major industry.

The company would be eligible for another $185 million in site preparation, wetland mitigation and transportation funds should it increase the size of its project to at least $3 billion in investment and at least 3,875 positions.

If Toyota should join with Panasonic to choose the megasite, not only would it give the Triad a major stake in the future of the automotive industry, it would vindicate planners. For 10 years, they’ve been working to make the megasite a reality. During that time, there’s been a series of ebbs and flows as prospective companies enter the conversation only to leave. Speculation and rumor have been as much a constant as the vastness of the acreage.

But where the megasite once was foremost on the minds of the community, news had gone silent. Like the land itself.

The city of Greensboro, Randolph County, North Carolina Railroad and the state all have tens of millions of dollars tied up in land and design work waiting for a car manufacturer that hasn’t come.

The loss of the Toyota-Mazda venture in 2018 was a bitter defeat for a team of state and local economic developers who felt the deal was theirs to lose. Not only did the company walk away from a $1.5 billion incentives package, it chose Alabama — which has long been an industrial rival of North Carolina.

Ever since Mercedes-Benz chose Alabama over North Carolina for an SUV factory 30 years ago, the state has been haunted by questions of whether it’s serious enough about laying out big incentive packages.

In deals outside the Triad, the state has slowly built its reputation as an economic development player for high-stakes projects.

But the Triad’s team has yet to score its most elusive win.

Most of those local and state officials who were here during the Toyota-Mazda period are still on the job and while they have moved on from 2018’s loss, they have persevered in developing the property. The city, for example, has completed most of the land deals it needs to build a water and sewer line south to the site, should a company choose to locate there.

Local leaders are understandably obsessed with the auto industry, which is considered “transformative” because it not only brings direct jobs for heavy manufacturing, but attracts dozens, if not scores, of supplier companies that would want to locate nearby.

The megasite was compiled through multiple purchases of private farms, large and small, and residential sections of Randolph County.

For a time, public opinion was largely against any massive industry changing the county’s rural character. But the region’s megasite advocates eventually found a way, and the money, to make selling property a lucrative deal for many of those naysayers.

Almost four years ago, Christensen said the group of megasite supporters was dedicated in the face of defeat.

“We know there’s a user out there for this site, and we’re going to find them and we’re not going to rest until we find them,” he said in January 2018. “We’re going to find a very successful business to put on that site.”

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

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