The one that got away

Published 12:56 pm Saturday, October 31, 2015

On October 31, 2013, Caterpillar celebrated the grand opening of its new 850,000 square foot, state of the art manufacturing facility in Athens, Georgia. Caterpillar – yes, that Caterpillar – built the new plant to manufacture small track-type tractors and mini-excavators. Among the hundreds of attendees on hand that day to celebrate the opening of the new facility was none other than the Chairman and CEO of Caterpillar, Doug Oberhelman. Oberhelman told attendees that day, “We are thrilled to call Georgia home to our newest Caterpillar production facility.” He continued, “This facility will be among the very best we have anywhere in the world. It will allow us to better serve our customers by improving delivery times.”

While the new plant was a big deal even for Caterpillar, it was an even bigger deal for the Athens community. At the time of the grand opening, Caterpillar had already hired 300 employees and began manufacturing in November of that same year. In April of 2014, Caterpillar hired another 100 employees, and was well on its way to reaching its announced plan of hiring 1,400 total employees by 2018. In addition to direct employment, the plant is expected to generate an additional 2,700 jobs in the region to fully support the facility. Not only did the plant represent a $200 million investment in the community, the anticipated regional economic impact is expected to be upwards of $2 billion.

On July 25, 2012, Enviva Pellets, LLC. broke ground on its new pellet manufacturing facility at the Turner Tract, a piece of land in Southampton County on Rose Valley Road off of Rte 671 just outside of Franklin. It had been quite a challenge for Enviva, the world’s largest manufacturer of solid biofuels, and the county to reach this point. In fact, Enviva initially stated it did not want to build its plant at the Turner Tract. In 2011, Enviva company officials had located a tract of land on Cypress Bridge Road that it was interested in developing.

The official reason given for that plan falling through was that they could not come to a financial agreement with the owner, although it is widely believed that a neighboring landowner worked diligently to kill the deal. In December, Enviva announced plans to locate its plant on Shady Brook Trail, but neighboring residents exploded in opposition. At the eleventh hour, with all other options exhausted and only because it so badly wanted to locate its facility in this timber rich region, Enviva agreed to develop at the Turner Tract. The announcement was made on December 8, 2011.

The next day, December 9, local economic development officials were faced with the unpleasant task of calling the Caterpillar representatives they had been speaking to for months about their new mini-excavator plant, and informing them that the Turner Tract was no longer available, and that the county had no place else for them to go.

On Feb. 17, 2012, in the Georgia capitol building, Caterpillar officials publicly announced plans to build their new, state of the art manufacturing facility in Athens.

When the Southampton County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Dec. 19, 2011, to sell 120 acres of land in the Turner Tract to Enviva, it reduced the amount of available acreage in the industrial park to 80, including the retention ponds. Southampton Industrial Park, located off of Rt 58 in Courtland, has only 27 developable acres available. And those combined 107 acres represent every last bit of publicly controlled, developable land available in all of Southampton County’s 600 square miles.

Every last bit.

And that, folks, is a problem.

You see, when a potential investor comes knocking on the door, we must have something available for them to invest in or they move on down the road. But we don’t. Our cupboards are bare. We have no merchandise to sell. We are, for all intents and purposes, out of business. That’s not pessimism speaking. Those are the facts.

The debate over the potential rezoning of the Cutchins Farm on Camp Parkway brings this dilemma squarely to the forefront. I have heard several folks say that the location of the property makes it unsuitable for development. Which begs the question; if not there, then where? Property that currently sits in areas currently zoned for light industrial development is not publicly available. We can’t force property owners to sell for purposes of economic development, which is a good thing. But when we have a landowner in the community who is willing to put up his own money to develop a piece of property that can lead to jobs and additional traffic – yes, traffic is a good thing for the local economy – then that is a good thing. We have to have more jobs. We have to have new investment. We have to have a reason for new people to come and spend money in our community. But by fighting every development opportunity that comes along, we move further and further away from achieving those goals.

Southampton County missed out on Caterpillar because we had no place for them to go. Had they been able to build their 850,000 square foot, state of the art facility here, bringing with it 1,400 direct jobs and $2 billion in economic impact, it would have been a transformative event for our community. Their presence alone would almost singlehandedly erase funding shortfalls for our schools and necessary social services. Yet there are those in the community, some who are either on or are running for the board of supervisors, who either know nothing about economic development or are going to fight it every step of the way. I want this community to be one that can effectively educate our children and give them a job when they return from college. And I know many of you feel the same way. But we’re not moving in the right direction. We need strong leadership who will make the proper, albeit difficult, choices that go into making economic development decisions. Without that leadership our community will continue to die a slow, painful economic death.

I urge county residents to vote this coming Tuesday and support candidates who will make the best decisions. The future of our community is literally at stake, and we can’t afford to get it wrong.