Wednesday, May 22, 2024

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Commissioners go behind closed doors for incentives project; consultant hired to consider civic center; Burlington looks at new incentives rules

The first full week of March has delivered a fresh bloom of economic development activity to both Alamance County’s leaders and their counterparts in the city of Burlington.

For the county’s board of commissioners, this flowering has been marked by a closer collaboration with the Alamance County Area Chamber of Commerce, which serves as the county’s agent for corporate recruitment.

During the commissioners’ latest regularly-scheduled meeting on Monday, David Putnam, the chamber’s economic development director, kicked off this new relationship by sharing the first in a series of quarterly reports about his organization’s efforts to attract and expand business and industry to Alamance County.

Putnam went on to present a roll call of corporate recruits from the past five years that included UPS, UPI Chem, and Chick-fil-A Supply Company, each of which has established a distribution center in Mebane. Putnam’s other big catches included NOA Living, a home furnishings supplier that intends to refurbish an old Burlington textile mill; Flexaust, a manufacturer of industrial hoses that has likewise set up shop in Burlington; Sunlight Batteries, which plans to bring a battery assembly operation to Mebane; and SteriTek, a medical sterilization specialist with a facility in the offing in Burlington.

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David Putnam, Alamance County Area Chamber of Commerce’s economic development director

Putnam also touted the expansion of existing facilities owned by Honda Power Equipment in Swepsonville, Lotus Bakeries in Mebane, National OnDemand in Burlington, and Sandvik Coromant in Mebane, and he alluded to two “discrete” ventures that have apparently reeled in Revere Copper and the South Korean manufacturer COSMOIND without any recourse to publicly-funded incentives.

Putnam added that, during the second half of 2022, the chamber engaged with a total of 40 corporate suitors, which included 32 manufacturers, seven biotech or life science companies, and one office/clerical firm.

“It’s a pretty good volume of traffic,” he insisted, “and I’ve heard that [compared with] the past, this is the most inundated we’ve been.”

Coming by rail
Putnam also touched on a couple of other projects unconnected to the expansion or relocation of any particular companies.

These more general endeavors include the proposed development of a “transload” hub in Mebane where companies without direct access to rail spurs would be able to move cargo back and forth between railcars and transfer trucks.

“It’s what we would call bumping cars,” Putnam elaborated, “and you could do that both ways: you could bump cars from the truck to the train or you could bump cars from the train to the truck…and it would provide rail access to industrial employers that would otherwise not have it.”


Tourist track
Meanwhile, Alamance County’s manager Heidi York briefed the commissioners on a plan to establish a new civic center that has been spearheaded by the county’s tourism development authority. York said that the authority, which is sustained by a special tax on hotel and motel accommodations, has hired a consultant to scout out sites for this project and “help us determine how the market can support a civic center.”

County manager Heidi York

Several commissioners had previously identified this proposed civic center as one of their top priorities for the county when they contemplated their goals for the New Year at an all-day retreat in January.

Once they had heard Putnam’s report, the commissioners made quick work of what remained of Monday’s meeting agenda before they went into a 70-minute closed session. This closed-door meeting included a confidential huddle with Putnam and other chamber representatives about an incentives request for an unspecified company.


Policy change in Burlington
The first Monday in March also witnessed a burst of new energy from Burlington’s chief corporate recruiter.

During a city council work session that afternoon, Peter Bishop, the city’s economic development director, went over some tweaks to the city’s incentives policies that he had previously proposed in October.

Burlington economic development director Peter Bishop

Bishop recalled that he had originally pitched these changes to the council in order to simplify and update some of the city’s incentive requirements and ensure that the city can respond nimbly to fast-moving corporate developments.

“This updated policy,” he added, “does not move away from the [North Carolina] Local Development Act. So, a project still needs to be competitive and an incentive still needs to be necessary…We also look at the 10 year process of return on investment in order to guide what an investment award would look like…and we have a very clear process for what happens when an individual or a company applies for an incentive.”

Bishop went on to assure the council that this new policy would still leave its members with the final authority to either accept or reject any requested inducement.

“Incentives are discretionary; they’re at the discretion of the Burlington city council,” he said. “So even if a business meets some of the criteria in this policy, the decision is still the city council’s whether to provide incentives.”


New avenues for incentives
Bishop also proposed some brand new guidelines for a “corridor program” that he said could benefit small businesses that are often passed over for local government subsidies. Under this program, companies along certain portions of Maple Avenue, North Church Street, and Webb Avenue could apply for up to $30,000 in city funds to offset the cost of real property upgrades.

“The intent would be a dollar-for-dollar match for projects in these corridors,” the city’s economic development director added. “There are two different grants in this program – one that focuses on the exterior and facades of the buildings and one that focuses on the interior.”

Bishop noted that the money to bankroll these grants would come from $1 million that the city has squirreled away thanks to recent infusions of federal pandemic relief funds. He added that, with any luck, the city should be able to disperse this money within the next three years to companies that meet the eligibility criteria for the proposed grants.

“This is a way to provide some initial grant support to help smaller projects,” he added. “This is certainly something that will help everybody.”

The council, for its part, seemed generally enthusiastic about these grants, despite some dickering among its members about the areas that they feel are best suited for these subsidies. The group’s overarching view was perhaps best captured by Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler, who insisted that this program could hasten an economic renaissance that he already sees on the horizon.

“We’re on the cusp of seeing some really cool things based just on economics,” he added, “and anything that we can do to stimulate that a little bit, I think, would be in the interest of the entire city.”

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