LIBERTY — It’s been more than 10 years since economic development executive Mike Solomon followed railroad tracks around the Triad, looking for a place to build a car plant.
By 2011, the 12-county region’s economy had been decimated by manufacturing job losses that began in the 1990s. Some estimates say as many as 90,000 textile, tobacco and furniture jobs disappeared in the rush to globalization and changing consumer needs.
But car companies weren’t among those businesses sending their factories overseas. In fact, they were building more of them in the United States.
Honda, Toyota, Volvo, Volkswagen and BMW were but some of the names of worldwide automakers who saw the benefits of the American workforce making cars for an American market, and Solomon was working for local business recruiters who wanted to find the best piece of land — near a railroad — they could to attract one of those car companies.
When Solomon found the undeveloped farmland of northern Randolph County, beside the Norfolk Southern Railroad, he said it was as if the perfect industrial site revealed itself.
That parcel would eventually be known as the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite.
And finally, it’s become The Promised Land after Toyota announced Monday it would build a $1.3 billion battery factory to power electric cars.
It’s the first time in a decade of effort that a company has come to stay after several made disappointing choices to locate elsewhere.
Local and state leaders had to offer the company free access to water and sewer lines and up to $430 million in other incentives to locate their plant here.
And while it’s not the bona fide auto plant local leaders had wanted, Toyota is a marquee name that vindicates the state and the region as an economic player with the clout to attract top-flight car companies.
Ten years. That’s roughly how long local and state leaders have been waiting, and hoping, for Monday’s announcement.
It seemed like it might never happen, especially in the last couple of years as news concerning the megasite had become nonexistent.
“Good things come to those who wait,” Gov. Roy Cooper said during the announcement at the proposed site, saying the production will help North Carolina meet its goal as a clean-energy leader. “We hope in the future everything that goes around the battery plant will be part of this as well.”
The Japanese automaker said the plant would start making batteries in 2025. The factory is part of $3.4 billion that Toyota plans to spend in the U.S. on automotive batteries during the next decade. The company on Monday didn’t detail where the remaining $2.1 billion would be spent, but part of that likely will go for another battery factory.
That North Carolina is here, now, makes it easy to forget how far the project has come.
Despite big dreams early on, there were moments when the megasite seemed doomed.
Not long after Solomon made a presentation to regional economic developers led by the late David Powell and former Greensboro Mayor E.S. “Jim” Melvin, leaders declared the Randolph properties a “megasite” — which was surprising news to the area’s 60 or so farmers and property owners who, at the time, had no intention of selling their land.
Progress was slow during the first two years.
In late 2012, the state Department of Commerce gave Randolph County $1.7 million to secure options to buy property on the site.
Within a year, however, Randolph County officials working with the Piedmont Triad Partnership were only able to find two families willing to sell about 700 acres. Other property owners, some of whom owned land that had been in their families for centuries, vowed never to sell.
Around that same time, then-Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration was sending mixed signals about whether it would be willing to finance the $50 million it would take to analyze, develop and provide utilities to the site.
The megasite project was fading.
But by early 2014, backers were increasingly optimistic.
In time, and with no small amount of pressure, the landowners came around, selling about 1,800 acres to economic development groups, Randolph County and the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite Foundation. Melvin created the Megasite Foundation as a vehicle to manage the project.
All that was left was a major manufacturer to come calling.
Ten years. That’s roughly the investment many made in the project.
And now it’s paid off.
During that time, there’s been a series of ebbs and flows as prospective companies entered 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 had tens of millions of dollars tied up in land and design work waiting for a car manufacturer that hadn’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.
Now, local, regional and state leaders have scored their most elusive win.
They basked in that glow on Monday under a gray sky and gusts of wind.
“A world-class company has taken notice of the way we do things. This company could have gone anywhere in the world, but they chose North Carolina,” said Machelle Sanders, North Carolina’s Secretary of Commerce.
Stan Kelly, the CEO of the Piedmont Triad Partnership, added in a statement: “The identification, acquisition and preparation of the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite represents regional collaboration at its best.”
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 persevered in developing the property.
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.
There’s hope that Toyota’s battery factory will lead to another factory on the same property — one that makes electric vehicles.
For a time, public opinion was largely against any massive industry changing Randolph 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.
Alan Ferguson, who lives near the site on a 50-acre farm and who has been a staunch opponent of placing heavy industry into such an idyllic setting, said last week that he mourns the loss of the land. But he is hopeful that residents can coexist with the new factory. That may explain why he attended Monday’s announcement.
“When we first heard the site was coming together back in 2012, we were interested in it because it seemed to be a big project that would affect our lives in some way. So we started following it,” he said. “We’ve expressed our opinions about it for a number of years and we’ve asked a lot of questions and I think the best way I could explain the way I feel is that we’re resigned to it now.