The hoped-for announcement that a major microchip manufacturer would choose Chatham’s Triangle Innovation Point as the home for one of the largest economic projects in North Carolina history isn’t going to happen, but officials and observers here aren’t deterred by the rejection.
As first reported by the News + Record online last Thursday, the semiconductor company’s expansion project — dubbed “Project Autumn” by state officials — is no longer considering Chatham’s TIP site as its home.
The 2,158-acre life science and advanced manufacturing park, formerly known as the Moncure Megasite, is located in southeast Chatham close to the Lee County line. Its proximity to rail, U.S. 1, the I-540 loop, Research Triangle Park and airports — it’s just six miles from Sanford’s Raleigh Executive Jetport and about 30 minutes from RDU — has made the site, with its 47 building locations and the capacity for more than 12 million square feet of space, an attractive potential new home for business and industry.
But it won’t be home for Project Autumn.
In the last month, multiple media outlets, including the News + Record, Triangle Business Journal, Business North Carolina and the Raleigh News & Observer, cited heavy interest in the location by the yet-unidentified U.S. company. Project Autumn reportedly involves plans for a capital investment of at least $40 billion, which would have made it among the largest economic development projects in state history. It would’ve helped fill the gap in a global chip shortage, which has created supply-chain disruption and adversely impacted the U.S. economy.
It also would have resulted in 5,000 to 10,000 new jobs, according the Triangle Business Journal, which reported Monday that the company — widely speculated to be Idaho-based Micron — has shifted its focus to a site in Texas.
The TBJ cited sources saying cities in Arizona and California are also vying for the project.
No formal announcement about the loss of Project Autumn has come from the state, but multiple local officials involved in the potential development now confirm the N.C. Dept. of Commerce has been officially notified.
The pieces just didn’t come together as they hoped.
Kirk Bradley, the developer of Mosaic in Chatham Park and one of the investors in the site’s TIP West, said a myriad of factors play into site selection, any of which can derail a project.
“In this case a big one was utilities and incentives,” he said of Project Autumn. “Given the unprecedented size of this project, it required a significant amount of utilities, and they were asking for a lot of financial incentives. That’s a decision at the state level as to how much they want to respond to the client’s request. We had a good utility solution, albeit expensive, but I don’t know about the financial incentives.”
Bradley is a partner in Chatham Media Group LLC, which owns the News + Record.
Rep. Robert Reives II, who represents Chatham in the N.C. General Assembly and lives in Goldston, said both the state and Chatham County government have a strong track record when it comes to incentives.
“I’d be really surprised if that [incentives] was a problem, either at the state or the county level, to be candid with you,” he told the News + Record. “If it is, it is. But I’d really be surprised. For instance, if you go back to the Toyota pursuit a couple of years ago, we offered almost three times the amount of incentives that Alabama offered. Alabama just won out.”
The TBJ cited unnamed sources who said the state’s inability to come to terms with the building of a post-treatment facility, as well as an incentives request which included decades of tax credits, contributed to Project Autumn passing on Chatham County.
Even so, Bradley said the site’s prospects are still overwhelmingly positive.
“I think the way to look at it is not that we didn’t get it, but that we were in the hunt and a finalist,” he said. “We learned things about our site in terms of readiness and requirements, and that’s always a good thing. Site readiness is very important in order to be competitive in these economic development projects. The more we learn, the better we can improve.”
Reives, too, said the news didn’t make him any less optimistic about the county’s potential to attract the kind of investment Project Autumn seemed to promise.
“We’ve had an incredible amount of interest in not only the TIP site, but also the CAM [the Chatham Advanced Manufacturing megasite, in Siler City] site,” he said. “This is the same process we’ve already been through — we went through this with Apple, we went through this with Toyota … And, you know, now that the Randolph site’s been taken care of, I think that makes things even better for us. And I think it allows for the state to invest even more assets and more attention towards getting these two sites developed.”
Apple announced last April it would invest $1 billion in N.C. over the next 10 years, including establishing a $552 million campus in RTP — employing 3,000 people working on technology, including software engineering and machine learning — and a $448 million expansion of its Catawba County data center. Just last month, Toyota announced it would build its first hybrid and electric vehicle battery manufacturing plant in North America, choosing Liberty — about 15 miles northwest of Siler City — for a $1.29 billion project at the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite. Toyota eventually will create 1,750 jobs at the site, which will become operational by 2025.
Also, in December, a TBJ report said the rail company CSX was considering a 200-acre site in Lee County for a project that would bolster the area’s supply chain capabilities as it attempts to lure big manufacturing projects.
Reives said he would have loved to have awakened on Monday knowing that a “big announcement” was imminent for Chatham, but he’s not fazed at all.
“I’m incredibly optimistic about both of those sites at this point,” he said.
Chatham County Manager Dan LaMontagne had the same sentiment.
“While we are disappointed that Project Autumn went in a different direction, Chatham County continues to demonstrate that we are very competitive in the national and global markets for such large-scale projects,” he said. “We continue to receive a great deal of interest at both of our sites and are confident that the right project will select Chatham County.”
Bradley and Michael Smith, the president of the Chatham Economic Development Corporation, joined Reives and others involved in Chatham’s economic development who continue to emphasize that the county’s two megasites remain high on the lists of companies looking to relocate or expand.
“TIP is an in-demand site, I can confirm that for sure,” Bradley said. “We continue to get RFIs [requests for information] and have had site visits as recent as last week. It is in the right location at the right time. It’s not a question of if we get a significant project or projects, it’s when. I think that will be sooner rather than later.”
Bradley, whose Lee-Moore Capital Company, based in Sanford, does investment and development in retail and residential real estate holdings, pointed out, too, that the TIP site — as well as the CAM site — could land multiple projects, not just single mammoth projects like Project Autumn.
Other officials previously said the TIP site alone could generate as many as 20,000 new jobs, and Smith told the News + Record in December he expects both sites to have tenants before this year is out.
Reives wouldn’t speak on the record about other ongoing contacts with active Chatham prospects, but he said he could vouch for anyone on the local or state level who says the TIP and CAM sites are popular targets.
“It’s a point where — and I don’t say this in a way that, ‘Oh, man, we’re so popular’ — but seriously, it’s been hard to keep up with which project is which in the sense that we have some big projects taking a look at us,” he said.
In Chatham, the prominence of the TIP site and Siler City’s CAM site in state-level conversations bodes well for the county’s future, Reive said. And Tim Booras, the owner of the CAM site, said he puts a positive spin on Autumn’s departure.
“By virtue of the fact that North Carolina was in the hunt for Autumn, with them considering less than a handful of sites in the nation, TIP had enough ‘positives’ for them to take a deep dive, and I think that is validating for the site and what it has to offer,” he said. “There are many more projects out there and many more to come. It is a matter of time for when North Carolina and the remaining megasites will find the right fits for symbiotic relationships.”
Bradley said the TIP and CAM sites make Chatham’s prospects “tremendous.”
“Chatham is in a great location for doing well in the current environment for economic development,” he said. “What I’m calling the great ‘on-shoring’ as a result of geo-political and pandemic supply chain issues will cause increased focus to be on Chatham County as these projects look to locate in the U.S., be it a domestic or international company.”
The sites are unique, he said, but what they share — and what adds to their attractiveness — is their proximation to “significant workforce generation capacity, plus the ability for people to re-locate here due to new housing underway at Chatham Park,” according to Bradley.
“There is no economic development ecosystem like CAM, TIP with Chatham Park in the center in the United States,” he said. “Further, both sites have rail access. Lastly, the CAM site is located on future Interstate 685, and TIP is located along an interstate quality road and intersections in U.S. 1. There are no sites like this in the U.S.”
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