WHO GETS THE CREDIT?

Chatham officials quick to share praise, recognition for VinFast deal

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When your county lands the largest economic development project in North Carolina history, the line of those selfishly seeking at least a little of the credit can quickly grow pretty long.

Officials like Dan LaMontagne, though, have been quick to share the credit and spread the praise for the work that brought Vietnamese carmaker VinFast here — and with it, $4 billion in investment and a plan for 7,500 jobs.

His list, like others queried in the aftermath of VinFast’s March 29 announcement, is lengthy.

“It really is impossible to single out any one member in this team effort to bring VinFast to Chatham County,” said LaMontagne, Chatham’s county manager. “There were so many critical players in landing this project.”

Of “utmost importance” to that effort, he said, was the commitment by the county’s board of commissioners and the Sanford City Council. The partnership between the two local governments — responsible, among other things, for bolstering Chatham’s water system, part of the ready infrastructure that attracted VinFast — was an example, LaMontagne said, “of how we can find shared success through good working relationships.

“In addition to the governing boards,” he added, “staff of both local governments work well together to find regional solutions. Coordination with the property owners’ group was also important.”

The formal announcement in Raleigh of the project, which even then was the culmination of months of intensive work by dozens of officials in Chatham and on the state level, may have felt to some like an overnight success story. In some ways it was: A rural county literally within walking distance of the Research Triangle Park, overshadowed by three nearby illustrious universities to the north, the Triad to the west, and a string of major job announcements and unprecedented growth news from its neighboring county immediately to the east (not to mention a massive new development project in the county just to the south) not only scores a project — but a multi-billion dollar project lauded as the largest in North Carolina’s history.

But it wasn’t overnight, of course. The romanticized notion of a “Field of Dreams”-type scenario — we built this thing, and look, cars magically began appearing — disavows the hard behind-the-scenes work required on the part of many hands to prepare the ground, literally and figuratively, for an announcement like VinFast’s.

Falling in love may indeed be a function of proximity and chance, as the lyrics to an Eagles ballad suggest. But there’s also a bit of luck and some good breaks that portend the solidification of any committed relationship. Mutual attraction is essential, too. Almost from the start, VinFast and Chatham’s Triangle Innovation Point were crushing on each other: The nascent Vietnamese company needed lots of land, ready infrastructure, a huge potential workforce, a location making supply chain easy and incentives to make its investment worthwhile.

And the TIP site, having been rebranded (it was formerly known as the Moncure Megasite) to attract an automotive manufacturing facility, was primed and ready for a major player, a development home run. Or — daresay it — a grand slam, as such projects are sometimes called in the development world: a game-changing “white whale” project incredibly rare in scale.

While projects like VinFast’s don’t come along often, when they do there are always disappointed suitors in a dozen or more states that didn’t make the cut. Micron, for example, the semiconductor chip manufacturer company, broke off its relationship with Chatham back in January. But no one here felt particularly jilted.

The county and its two ready tracts — the 2,158.5-acre TIP site and Siler City’s 1,802-acre Chatham Advanced Manufacturing site — were being heavily courted by other companies. It was a matter of time, local officials said, before something broke big and Chatham put something in its “win” column.

Still, the complexity and nuances of finalizing a multi-billion dollar agreement with an electric vehicle manufacturer 11 time zones away — the first such win in the state’s history after years of misses — is a staggering feat. The coordination between the industry’s team and local on-the-ground people like Michael Smith and his staff at the Chatham Economic Development Corporation, who did much of the heavy lift, and state officials from the Economic Development Partnership of N.C. and the N.C. Dept. of Commerce and others in state and legislative offices in Raleigh is as exacting as it was exhausting.

And every official on the local level agreed that none of that occurs without the foundation laid years ago in Chatham County by visionaries with the foresight to envision a project like Vinfast, or the development of just the right apparatus at the right time.

“This announcement was a long time in the making,” said Walter Petty, a former county commissioner who, a decade ago, was part of a team working with county staff and local business leaders and executives to create a scenario — and ultimately a site; two sites, actually — that, in time, would position Chatham to land the kind of economic development wins that would boost local employment and fortunes.

“It’s easy to forget that when we first started working on getting two megasites certified in Chatham there was not universal agreement that we should make the investments given the risks involved,” Petty recalled. “For me, the possibility of attracting billions of dollars and thousands of jobs made the risks worth taking. I’m proud to have been involved from the beginning and commend our economic development team for bringing our vision to fruition.”

Having the right people in the right jobs at the state level and a thousand other things — not Joe Biden’s “economic agenda,” as the president cited when the project was announced, to the chagrin of many locals — was just part of the formula. Without all the working pieces, those involved say, “Project Blue” — as VinFast was known before the official announcement last month — could have been another “what if?” for Chatham.

This time, it wasn’t.

LaMontagne also cited investors Jason Kaplan (Moncure Holdings), Kirk Bradley (Lee-Moore Capital), and Arthur Samet and Brian Hall (Samet), who acquired the land and committed it to being a certified industrial site, as being particularly instrumental. And the county’s partnerships with groups such as Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, the N.C. Dept. of Transportation, the N.C. Ports Authority, and the N.C. Railroad Company were also important to securing the project.

“And without the support of Gov. [Roy] Cooper and leadership of the North Carolina House and Senate, this historic project would not have been possible,” LaMontagne said. “We are grateful for the collaboration and commitment among these excellent partners.”

Bradley also said “enormous credit” should be given to Jason Kaplan and the Kaplan family for buying the land to support the vision of developer Steve Stroud and former N.C. Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker of Sanford — who foresaw a megasite in Moncure some 17 years ago and were early proponents of a vehicle assembly facility there.

“These things take time in addition to the land assemblage,” Bradley said. “There were years of work convincing local officials as well as the state Economic Development ecosystem how this could work and eventually be the base for an OEM [original equipment manufacturer].”

All those efforts helped make Chatham County “built for the moment,” said the EDC’s Smith, when VinFast came calling.

Smith also pointed to LaMontagne and the county’s board of commissioners for their work and wisdom in putting together a transformational grant program (for projects brining at least 1,000 jobs and $1 billion in investment) and a key part of securing VinFast.

And he and Bradley said that in addition to a low-tax, business friendly environment here, the state’s recently-enhanced Transformative-class Job Development Investment Grant (JDIG) program — like Chatham’s, it provides performance-based incentives — was essential in closing the deal: it could eventually provide VinFast with $316.1 million package over the next 32 years, depending on targets. (Additional infrastructure help and upgrades from the state’s Department of Transportation, part of an anticipated $450 million worth of site and road improvements and including additional water and sewer work, were also essential.)

The Republican-controlled General Assembly, led by President Pro Tem Phil Berger in the Senate and Speaker Tim Moore in the House, passed the Transformative JDIG legislation in 2016 for projects with over $1 billion in investment.

“This was an essential building block to put the North Carolina economic development ecosystem in a competitive position with other Southeastern states,” Bradley said. “Prior to that, we didn’t have the incentives to attract an OEM like VinFast.”

Smith also cited cooperation from the TIP site’s owners — for their patience, among other things.

“The Kaplan ownership group believed in our team,” he said. “There were two different times in the past six months where there was a chance that a different group from out of this area would consider making the TIP site a large multi-user business park. We were able to keep Kaplan confidentially updated about our level of interest and activity from a single large user like Project Blue. We are sincerely grateful they held the TIP site together so we could have the largest announcement in the history of N.C. to come to Chatham County.”

State Rep. Robert Reives II, who lives in and represents Chatham in the General Assembly, specifically singled out the Smith and N.C. Dept. of Commerce leadership, particularly Secretary Machelle Baker Sanders, for their work and coordination in making the project happen.

“We always knew that our area was poised to attract this level of investment,” he said. “Folks at the state and local level have worked tirelessly to help make this happen, and I applaud everyone who played a role in bringing VinFast to Triangle Innovation Point.”

For Reives, that number also includes Bradley, Kaplan, Smith and Chatham Park developers Tim Smith and Bubba Rawl.

“These are just a few of the forward-thinking people who deserve recognition for what they did to land this investment in Chatham,” Reives said. “The announcement builds upon a year of success so far in North Carolina ... Not only are we bringing thousands of new jobs to Chatham County, but these are the jobs of tomorrow, being created in Chatham today.”

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