For EDC’s Smith, an unexpected question, a major economic win

Remembering a ‘point-blank’ ask from VinFast

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MONCURE — The Sky Mart convenience store in New Hill, located just off U.S. 1 near Moncure, is a landmark for anyone traveling between Jordan Lake and the Shearon Harris area, as well as kind of a halfway point between Sanford and Cary and a place to gas up or pick up some homemade biscuits.

And as a rendezvous spot for Michael Smith — the president of the Chatham County Economic Development Corporation — and development prospects checking out Triangle Innovation Point, it was also the scene of a rather awkward moment back in December.

One day, in the process of working with representatives from VinFast, the Vietnamese carmaker which last week announced it planned to build a $4 billion manufacturing facility here, Smith was parked at the Sky Mart with a VinFast executive after a tour of the area.

The employee, in the middle of a conversation, paused and looked hard at Smith. He may have noticed the number of cars in the lot or the hive of activity taking place — or perhaps had heard “word on the street” rumors about activity at the site, which ultimately became public in January.

But whatever the reason, he asked Smith point-blank: Is anyone else looking at this site seriously?

“And we, you know … I didn’t go into detail about it, certainly, about the company” Smith remembered of the moment. “Other than to say, ‘Yes, a large semiconductor project is looking at the site you’re looking at.’”

How pivotal the moment was is hard to gauge. VinFast had only been considering Chatham County for a short time, and it wasn’t until early March that it informed state and Chatham officials that the TIP site was on its shortlist for an electric vehicle manufacturing plant. But for Smith, it was particularly memorable — and unique in his long career in economic development.

“It was interesting, because I had never run into that before,” Smith said of his prospect’s sense of other interest in the former Moncure Megasite — and the pointed question, which might be considered taboo in some economic development circles. “And just the way that happened … I remember thinking how fascinating it was because I think in all things, we want to be as truthful and transparent as appropriate. And we’re not hiding things from anybody — but it was … it was kind of a question I wasn’t expecting.”

Smith, whom state and local officials credit and laud for the work he did to help bring the state’s largest economic development project to Chatham County, was measured in his response. He didn’t want to come across “as a salesman, trying to trick somebody” with a “you better act fast” tactic.

“There’s a fine line,” he said, “between sharing information that they’ve asked about and pressing it and making it look like you’re trying to twist somebody’s arm into doing something.”

But VinFast, of course, did do something: the company signed a memorandum of understanding with Gov. Roy Cooper and North Carolina last Tuesday to bring the state its first automotive manufacturing facility. VinFast will occupy nearly 2,000 acres at the TIP site and build a plant there that will eventually produce 200,000 EVs (electric vehicles) and car batteries and employ 7,500 workers.

And the company, the chip manufacturer which the VinFast employee inquired about? Smith wouldn’t confirm that it was Idaho-based Micron Technologies, which in January announced it had focused its sights in Texas — not North Carolina — for a major expansion. 

For Smith, moments like the one in the Sky Mart parking lot, while out of the ordinary, are a part of the job. The VinFast work and the 11-hour time difference between North Carolina and Hanoi, Vietnam, meant lots of night work; he and dozens of other local and state officials worked most nights and every weekend in March and spent hours in a variety of conference rooms in downtown Raleigh law offices. Nothing was certain until last Tuesday.

Were there other anxious moments?

Yes, he confirmed. Another came extremely late in the game. Gov. Roy Cooper’s office released a statement on Sunday, March 27, saying there’d be an economic development project announcement involving Chatham County on Tuesday in Raleigh. At 10:30 the following night, as Smith was reviewing his long list of to-dos for Tuesday’s event before heading to bed, he received a message: VinFast executives wanted one more visit to the site on Tuesday morning, just hours before they were scheduled to gather at the Raleigh Convention Center in Raleigh for the big unveiling.

So Smith drove his freshly-washed black Jeep back to the Sky Mart at 8:30 the next morning for yet another tour. And as he waited for VinFast’s team members to arrive, he couldn’t help but reflect on the role the Sky Mart played — and will play — in the project.

“I paused to take one more look around this nice, small convenience store,” he said. “I couldn’t mention it at the moment, but all I could think of was what was about to happen and how pretty soon, that store will have a line for those homemade biscuits every morning, for a long time to come.”

 

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