“It’s going to take millions and millions of dollars, which is pretty overwhelming for an individual investor.”– Burlington city councilman Bob Ward
“It’s been a high priority for me to move forward with some kind of activity and revitalization on that site. This project is now being reported directly to the Secretary of the U.S. Army. It has been moved to the very top of the list.”– Burlington mayor Jim Butler
Officials in Burlington have nurtured some soaring visions for the Tarheel Missile Plant ever since the U.S. Army sold off this massive industrial facility along Graham-Hopedale Road nearly two decades ago.
But the future of this site, which most area residents know from its long-time association with the defense contractor Western Electric, is still very much in the hands of the military – which appears to be following that old Army dictum of “hurry up and wait” when it comes to the plant’s redevelopment.
This state of anxious inertia was brought to the fore on Monday when Burlington’s municipal leaders held a joint meeting with their state legislators as well as aides to U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, U.S. Sen. Ted Budd and U.S. Rep. Valarie Foushee.
During this legislative breakfast, Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler recounted the city’s earlier efforts to jumpstart the revitalization of Western Electric since the property reverted to civilian ownership in 2004, as well as the obstacles to redevelopment caused by site contamination.
Butler noted, that since his election as mayor in 2021, he has tried to convince the U.S. Army to take a more active role in the cleanup of this 22-acre expanse.
“It’s been a high priority for me to move forward with some kind of activity and revitalization on that site,” he assured the audience at Monday’s multi-jurisdictional gathering. “This project is now being reported directly to the Secretary of the U.S. Army,” he continued. “It has been moved to the very top of the list.”
The Army’s transformational presence at this site dates to World War II, when the facility, which had previously served as a textile plant, was repurposed to make aircraft and other equipment for troops on the front lines.
After the war ended, the plant’s operations pivoted to confronting the Cold War threat from the former Soviet Union. It was during this period that the plant came under the management of Western Electric, which used the facility to develop the Nike Ajax missile, along with other, more advanced missile systems as the arms race progressed. The plant even mobilized for the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars” as it was colloquially known, although by then, the facility’s best days were already well in the past.
In 1991, the plant’s operations were officially suspended by Western Electric’s successor AT&T. From there, it took more than a decade for the Army decommission the plant and begin to market it for civilian use.
In November of 2004, the Army struck a deal with a limited liability corporation called Hopedale Investments, which agreed to purchase the site for $1,585,000. Nine years later, the property was sold again for $755,000 to Alabama-based Saucier Investments. In 2018, it was transferred to Central Park Burlington LLC for $1.75 million.
During this round robin of real estate deals, it became increasingly clear the site still contained veins of soil and water contamination that would hinder any potential new use.
During Monday’s discussion, Butler observed that these polluted remnants have created numerous regulatory “trap-doors” for a would-be developer to negotiate.
“To even put a fence post into the ground,” he told the officials present that morning, “it needs to go to the U.S. Army and then the [North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality], before it comes back to us and goes through permitting.”
Butler said he’s hoping this process will be expedited thanks to the Army’s decision to make the plant a higher-level priority but conceded that the property is unlike other Brownfield sites because it happens to be in private hands at the moment.
The city’s mayor also dropped a few hints to encourage the state and federal dignitaries at Monday’s breakfast to be on alert for the funds necessary to bring this desolate property back to productive use.
According to Nolan Kirkman, Burlington’s assistant city manager for development services, the site’s owner would need somewhere between $7 million and $10 million just to demolish the plant’s existing structures.
Meanwhile, councilman Bob Ward concurred that the plant’s full-scale revitalization may be beyond the means of the current owner.
In the end, none of the guests at Monday’s event volunteered a formal commitment of funds toward the plant’s redevelopment. But some, like state senator Amy Scott Galey, were at least optimistic about this project’s long-term potential.
“I’m just looking forward to the day when we can go there for a ribbon cutting,” Galey told the group, “and witness the start of a new era for east Burlington. I just hope we’re all still around [when it happens].”