An up and down year for Chatham’s economic development

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 1/10/19

Utter the words “Toyota-Mazda,” and Alyssa Byrd assures you it’s been enough time that it doesn’t hurt.

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An up and down year for Chatham’s economic development

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Utter the words “Toyota-Mazda,” and Alyssa Byrd assures you it’s been enough time that it doesn’t hurt.

Byrd, the interim president of the Chatham Economic Development Corporation, was in on the discussions about bringing a joint venture between the Japanese auto makers to the Chatham County area. It would have been a manufacturing plant that would provide thousands of jobs and millions of dollars of investment into the local economy and lead to more manufacturers landing nearby to supply the plant.

But alas, in March, the announcement came that the plant landed in Huntsville, Alabama. The plant will employ up to 4,000 people and build 300,000 cars a year; the companies’ combined investment into the project is a whopping $1.6 billion.

Byrd joked that if you’d asked her in the immediate months after the Huntsville announcement about what it meant to her for Chatham not to land that project, she wouldn’t exactly be amenable to the question. But now, with hindsight and perspective, she said, it’s different.

“Losing a project isn’t as much losing as it is learning and being ready for the next one,” she said. “That’s what happened with (Toyota-Mazda). We’ve implemented some different changes in strategies to respond to that.”

The biggest need the county faces for economic development, Byrd said, is infrastructure, both in available buildings and site development. For the most part, that means wastewater and water line development, and the county is on track for improvements that, with most of the help coming from its neighbor to the south, the City of Sanford.

Sanford already treated Goldston’s wastewater headed into 2018 and picked up Pittsboro’s in May of last year. Bid have already been awarded from Sanford for construction of sewer extensions to the Moncure Megasite, with Sanford picking up more than $3 million on the tab plus a $4 million grant.

This is something Sanford has been planning on for a couple years.

“The key is we keep an open dialogue and realize the world doesn’t all revolve around Sanford,” Sanford City Manager Hal Hegwer told The Sanford Herald in 2016. “We do benefit from things that happen in other places, whether it’s exactly in our city limits or not. Our job is to be out there, scanning the horizon, looking for anything that could be an opportunity.”

Byrd emphasized the power of that regional collaboration, something Chatham’s elected officials have gotten on board with. In November 2018, Chatham County and Sanford agreed to help share the tax burden on the wastewater line to the megasite in what Diana Hales, then-chairman/current vice chairman of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners called “an exciting regional partnership.”

“Everybody benefits from this arrangement,” Hales said. “Water and wastewater infrastructure are the drivers for attracting large scale development. This puts Moncure in that game.”

Bob Joyce, executive director of economic development for the Sanford Area Growth Alliance, Lee County’s economic development engine, told the News + Record that multiple entities agreeing to share the load is a “relatively new phenomenon” in economic development, but it has “proven to be a good model.”

“The agreement between the City of Sanford and Chatham County on the sharing of revenue from the sewer line allowed that whole deal to work,” Joyce said. “Economies are regional, and we can’t afford to duplicate these things.”

Joyce said he has been in regular contact in recent years with first Kyle Touchstone, Byrd’s predecessor at the Chatham EDC, and then Byrd due to the regional nature of projects considering the area. He pointed to the types of companies, particularly pharmaceutical manufacturers and life science projects, that have considered the area.

“Those things are more regional, especially in some of the industries where wage rates are higher,” he said. “People will commute longer distances for a good job.”

And Lee County, he pointed out, has done its fair share of investment as well. Lee, along with Chatham and Harnett, contributed $120,000 each a couple years ago for marketing funding for the Moncure Megasite.

“I think that shows the spirit of cooperation,” Joyce said.

Cindy Poindexter, executive director of the Chatham Chamber of Commerce, is a member of the Chatham EDC’s board. She stressed the importance of bringing larger companies to the area.

“Industry pays for itself and for everything else for other people,” Poindexter said. “I love the rural community, and I think we still need that, but I think that we need to bring these biggest businesses too. You can’t just have residents. You’ve got to have industry here.”

Poindexter said she was encouraged by the progress the county made — Chatham finished third in the running, she said — for Toyota-Mazda.

“I think there is probably more that can be done, but I think it’s huge that we ended up third,” she said. “That says, I lot, I think for the county, even though we didn’t get it.”

Now months removed — and able to talk about it without frustration, she reinforced — Byrd said the discussions were ultimately encouraging. It showed, she said, that Chatham County can play with the big boys.

“We know we have a real, marketable product,” she said. “These teams are doing research well in advance of their visit here, so they know we have the workforce, they know how much we’re growing, they have all the statistical points. Going through this process multiple times with different teams, it showed that this was real.”


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