How Sanford got these big manufacturers to come to Lee County

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 2/28/20

I may have mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again: I came to Chatham County from working at a newspaper in nearby Lee County, and one of my “beats” was business. Additionally, I covered …

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How Sanford got these big manufacturers to come to Lee County

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I may have mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again: I came to Chatham County from working at a newspaper in nearby Lee County, and one of my “beats” was business. Additionally, I covered both Lee County and city of Sanford government.

As such, I reported on several items related to the Central Carolina Enterprise Park, a 750-acre patch of land in northern Lee County that has become a hotspot for business stimulation and economic development. Within the last couple of years, three companies have announced plans to locate manufacturing plants within or nearby CCEP.

For someone who was covering local government and business in the early stages of CCEP’s development, I’m a little amazed at how quickly it’s all come together. But looking back, I can see how some of the investments that local government made, alongside private dollars, led to the boom that Lee County is seeing in that area.

Those investments are more or less three-fold. (Oh, and make sure you stay until the end for a surprise.)

Investing in infrastructure

The Lee County government spent $358,462 in what was termed “entryway development,” landscaping and structuring the entryway for the business park along with the construction of two signs. When I was at The Herald in Sanford, I heard a lot of complaints about that — what good could a sign do? Why are we wasting this money? The county also spent around $300,000 to extend broadband access out to the site. On the city’s side, the Sanford City Council approved a $4.5 million expenditure in October 2016 to extend water and sewer to the site and annexed the park’s land into city limits.

These investments helped make the CCEP what it is: a nice-looking place off a major highway for a company to locate a plant. If you drive south on U.S Hwy. 1 toward Sanford from the Moncure area, you’ll pass the CCEP on the right and you’ll see the sign and the entryway. But you won’t see the broadband and water and sewer that made it something attractive.

Investing in a building

Another government investment that earned some pushback was the county and the city investing around $650,000 over two years in what were called “carrying costs” for a spec building on the CCEP site. A Herald editorial from the time of the payments said the paper “received a few comments questioning the need” for the building on the paper’s Facebook page.

When the idea was proposed, CCEP’s site owners had no public assurances the building would be used. The spec building would be constructed as a “shell” with little inside it but the foundations for a future manufacturing plant. Bob Joyce with the Sanford Area Growth Alliance, the county/city’s economic development arm, told me at the time: “It’s like a car dealer having a car on the lot. It’s like a real estate dealer having a good listing available for sale.”

Last week, gene therapy company Audentes Therapies announced it was bringing a $109 million, 209-job investment to the building. It was the third company within the last two years to announce plans to build at — in the case of Japan-based Dowa Thermotech — or near — in the case of India-based Bharat Forge — the CCEP.

Investing in a collaborative

Both the city and county invested time, effort and funds into creating the aforementioned Sanford Area Growth Alliance, or SAGA. I don’t have total numbers, but both governing entities partnered with private funders to create SAGA — which was formerly called the Sanford-Lee County Partnership for Prosperity — and put economic development and Chamber of Commerce, and later tourism, services under one roof. The Buggy Factory building in downtown Sanford where SAGA’s offices are located also houses planning and permitting.

That’s not even get into economic tax incentives in this story, but that plays a role as well. The surprise here: Lee County’s property tax rate was 79.5 cents per $1,000 of property value in 2017 when most of this work happened. That’s significantly higher than Chatham’s. But in the future, there’s a good chance that rate will go down because of the sheer amount of industrial and commercial development — which, by the way, is situated in a rural area far from most of the county’s residences.

Sanford Mayor Chet Mann, who’s been part of driving the economic growth that’s happened in the area recently, told me this last year when I asked him for any advice he’d give to Siler City’s mayoral candidates on economic development: “You’ve got to invest your funds and show the private community that you’ve done it. But they will not go first. You’ve got to lead with public funds and they’ll come in behind you.”

And an additional word from Audentes Senior VP Donald Wuchterl from last week’s announcement: “What really drove us was the interaction we had with the mayor and local government officials...They brought everybody up for us. No one else did that.”

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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