GREENSBORO — Randolph County’s two-year effort to create a megasite in Liberty has gone dark.
But the lights are on about 10 miles away in Chatham County, where Duke Energy is backing a plan to turn 1,774 acres into a site that could attract North Carolina’s first auto plant.
An international consultant paid by Duke Energy’s Site Readiness Program has spent the past two months studying the land, which is to the east of the Randolph County line.
Local officials call the site the Chatham-Randolph Megasite because roughly 20 acres are in eastern Randolph County.
On Friday, Mark Sweeney, senior principal of Greenville, S.C.-based-McCallum Sweeney, will present his findings to a top-shelf group of state, regional and local economic development experts, including the state Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker.
His goal at the Siler City presentation is to explain what the site’s owners and Chatham County must do to meet the requirements for state certification.
He would know. Sweeney’s company developed the requirements and several states use them.
Without them, most automakers won’t even look at a megasite.
Dianne Reed, president of the Chatham Economic Development Corp., said “Essentially, we’re trying to get most of the people in the room that we feel would be important partners if we go through with this.”
From the commerce secretary down, an auto plant is considered the top prize for an economy.
For more than 15 years, North Carolina has stood on the sidelines as the Southeast became saturated with auto factories from companies such as Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and BMW just down the road in Greenville, S.C.
Backers say an automobile factory can be a savior in a region like the Piedmont Triad, which has lost tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs in the past decade.
A plant that employs 2,000 skilled manufacturing workers at, say, $75,000 a year could attract thousands more people who work for suppliers.
State and Randolph County officials began working two years ago to create a 2,000-acre megasite in the northeastern part of the county on the Guilford County line.
They said late last year that they had roughly 700 acres under contract.
A regional economic development group, the Piedmont Triad Partnership, was working to buy land options.
But the effort stalled earlier this year when Randolph County officials questioned whether the state would support further development of the project.
Since then, Alan Ferguson, a resident who speaks for more than 60 landowners, said “we have heard nothing at all regarding overtures to any property owners.”
Friday’s meeting doesn’t mean the Chatham land is now ready for an auto company. Far from it.
An auto factory is complex and demanding. It requires direct rail access, direct interstate-quality highway access, heavy-duty electric, water and sewer utilities.
With dozens of megasites in the Southeast competing for plants, an automaker can be very choosy.
That’s where Duke Energy, McCallum Sweeney, the state and a host of other economic developers enter the story.
They’ll check off the boxes to make the site ideal.
They’ll also work with the property’s two owners, Tim Booras and D.H. Griffin Sr., who is widely known as the founder of D.H. Griffin Cos.
At stake will be millions of dollars.
According to an estimate prepared for Randolph County, preparing the site could cost at least $52 million with a typical incentive package to sign an auto factory valued at $400 million.
Southern Auto Corridor magazine, which covers the industry in the Southeast, quotes one expert who says Mercedes, BMW, Hyundai and Toyota could be among the major companies that will build factories in the next 24 to 48 months.
And if McCallum Sweeney, Duke Energy or other marketing groups land a prospect, the bidding war begins.
It’s a high-stakes buffalo hunt, as some economic developers have called it, but the buffalo are roaming.