Behind the deal: How Amazon was lured by Garner

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By Lauren K. Ohnesorge

Fifteen hundred jobs.

“Let me say that again, 1,500 jobs,” John Burns, Wake County Commissioner, told the crowd gathered at Garner Town Hall August 10, telling them the project, a massive, $200 million, 2.6 million square-foot fulfillment center for e-retailer Amazon, will “create opportunities for all Wake County residents, no matter their education background.”

The excitement was obvious as nearly a dozen grinning officials lined up behind the lectern to announce what had been an open secret in the North Carolina town for weeks.

“If it looks like I have a smile on my face I do,” Mayor Ronnie Williams said. “It’s a historic day for Garner.”

And not just because of Amazon.

Quietly, economic developers, town and county officials and even the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, have been working to revive the old ConAgra site for nearly a decade.

And Amazon is more than Williams says he could have hoped for. “Hell, yeah,” he says. “Not the way we planned, but I sure am glad it happened.”

Amazon is investing about four times what ConAgra funneled into the site at its peak, according to the town.

Amazon wasn’t its first suitor, says Garner Economic Development Executive Joseph Stallings. The years have brought multiple site visits from several companies – but officials describe them as “nibbles,” not bites.

The bite came nearly a year ago.

Stallings and his team had, for years, been shooting out marketing materials about the potential for the old ConAgra factory, vacant since 2009. They’d been attending trade shows and conferences, trying to sell the world on the site’s access and proximity to the fast-growing state capital.

The site, designated a brownfield – which refers to idled property where the threat of environmental contamination has hindered its development –  had been dormant since the deadly ConAgra explosion. The town had taken ownership of the property, and established a nonprofit, Garner Economic Development Corporation, to oversee its redevelopment.

Over the years, weeds had taken over the chain linked site, dilapidated structures – the remnants of the facility that used to pump out Slim Jims – an eyesore to drivers along Jones Sausage Road.

Then, “several” months ago, a real estate connection Stallings had met at a conference approached the town about “Project Axis.”

A major firm was interested in making a big investment.

Stallings could tell right away the scope was huge. And when he learned the name “Amazon” six months ago, he admits it added to the excitement.

He knew there was competition for the project, though he says he was not told specifics. But that’s part of the reason Garner officials worked up an incentives package targeting roadwork at the site, which is near I-40.

The state is committing up to $4.5 million for road improvements, the town $600,000. Stallings says the improvements will make the stretch of area easier for commuters, as well as the company.

 Wake County Commissioner Matt Calabria says the county had discussed the project in closed session, considering whether to provide incentives. County dollars went toward infrastructure improvements at the site – support for water and sewer.

“We also agreed to defer property taxes on the property while it was held by the town,” he says.

Michael Regan, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality secretary, says the announcement validates the North Carolina Brownfields Program, which allows developers to negotiate what needs to happen to make the site suitable for reuse – rather than cleaning up the site to regulatory standards. Brownfield sites are also eligible for property tax incentives lasting five years.

Regan equates it to “recycling,” and guesses that, without a brownfields agreement, this opportunity would not have happened. “Most communities that have abandoned properties and properties that have been contaminated are left with very few options,” he says, noting the program turns “an eyesore into a valuable piece of property.”

He says the state has made close to 500 brownfield announcements and that opportunities to utilize the program to “revitalize communities” are emerging across North Carolina. “Environmental protection and economic prosperity are not mutually exclusive,” he adds. “They go hand in hand and today is a perfect example.”

But aside from brownfields, the Triangle region is seeing unprecedented economic development interest. Both Wake County Economic Development Director Michael Haley and Ted Conner, Vice President of Economic Development and Community Sustainability at the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce, have said in recent interviews that activity is picking up – and more project wins could be coming.

Officials gathered in Garner, too, hope it’s just the beginning, as Amazon is also considering sites for its unrelated 50,000-job HQ2 project. The Triangle, along with 19 other metros, is on its short list. “We are proud to have Garner be home to Amazon’s first location in Wake County,” Burns says, putting particular emphasis on “first.”

Calabria says Wake County is seeing interest from other companies, too, and that more announcements could happen soon. “There are, at any given time, tons of projects large and small that are in the works,” he says. “We consistently punch above our weight. We are competing with the most competitive cities and regions in the entire country – in some cases the entire world.”

In the meantime, work is getting ready to begin at the site, which has been sold to developer Hillwood for an undisclosed sum. It’s expected to take 14 months.

Article source: Triangle Business Journal