Prospects make Chatham EDC director optimistic

May. 05, 2014 @ 05:25 PM

Chatham County's industrial base is woefully low, the county's chief economic developer said Monday — just before detailing three projects that could turn the county from a largely residential area to one of the top jobs centers in the state.

Those three projects are an existing but underdeveloped industrial site in Moncure, a tentative mega-site near Siler City and the massive Chatham Park development, also still in the planning stages.

Between them are more than 10,000 acres and the potential to bring in thousands of jobs and tens of thousands of new residents. And that makes Dianne Reid, president of the Chatham County Economic Development Corporation, excited about the future of Chatham County and the surrounding areas.

She told a crowd Monday, at the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce's monthly public policy luncheon, that there's good reason for Lee County residents to be interested in the projects as well.

The Moncure site probably has more employees from Sanford than from any other city, she said, working at the particleboard plant there. And at the Siler City industrial park, the two owners are actively pursuing an automobile plant that could draw many employees from Lee County.

While manufacturing in Chatham County has shrunk drastically in the last decade, Reid said — dropping from 34 percent of jobs to 16 percent — the presence of manufacturing jobs in Lee County has remained relatively high, dropping from 39 percent of all local jobs to 31 percent.

She also said the two industrial sites could help mitigate Chatham County's over-reliance on residential development. The county's property tax base is 77 percent residential, 14 percent agricultural and 9 percent industrial.

That leads to thin profit margins for local government: For every dollar a residential owner pays in taxes, he or she gets $1.14 in services, Reid said. Agriculture and industry, on the other hand, both result in net gains — and especially so for industrial property — but combined, those two sectors comprise less than a quarter of the tax base.

"The thing that blows my mind is Orange County, which doesn't like any development, is higher [in its share of industrial tax base]," Reid said, adding that sales tax revenue also is lagging because of the lack of industrial development; for every dollar a Chatham County resident spends, she said, only 36 cents are spent actually within Chatham County.

But the county seems to be moving in the right direction, Reid said, having added hundreds of jobs and tens of millions of dollars in commercial investment in the last two years. That growth has largely come from a new Walmart and nursing home north of Pittsboro, as well as the relocation of Strata Solar, the world's sixth-largest solar energy company, from Chapel Hill to Chatham County.

And then there's the Chatham Park development, an 8,000-acre mixed-use area planned for the area between Pittsboro and Jordan Lake. If approved it could add 60,000 new residents to Pittsboro, which Reid said will eventually annex any parts of the development not currently under the town's jurisdiction.

Lee County Commissioner Jim Womack asked why the development group and park owner Jim Goodnight, the billionaire founder of SAS Institute in Cary, would favor annexation given the hostility many Pittsboro residents and officials have exhibited.

"If the town of Pittsboro is so violently opposed to it, aren't there other options?" Womack asked.

There are, Reid said, "but it would take more time," and the developers got into it without anticipating the opposition.

"If they had a crystal ball, they probably would've gone another way," she said, noting that much of the opposition has been environmentally based hyperbole and that in reality, the development could be a trend-setter with electric public vehicles, ubiquitous rooftop gardens and more.

"The plan is ... making this a case study for the latest and best technology" in the world of sustainable development, she said.

The town already has held several public hearings on Chatham Park and have inched closer to approval. Another public hearing is planned for 7:30 p.m. on May 20 in the Historic Chatham County Courthouse to discuss the project's revised master plan.