Some Context: I live in Chatham County, North Carolina. We have a local e-mail list called the Chatham Chatlist. It is run by a man named Gene Galin, and as you can tell by the website he doesn’t know much about computers. Every night he uses a Windows program to hand assemble the mailing list digest, and he uses that time to exercise some editorial control. The following is a post I sent to be included on the list that he refused to include, so I’m posting it here. It concerns a recent decision by the Chatham County Board of Commissioners to spend over $500K on the option to buy a “megasite” in the poorer, western side of the County.
UPDATE: Apparently Gene decided not to publish this because it is, of course, just about the HB2 bill. (sigh)
First of all, I apologize in advance for one more post about the CAM, after I said the one in Chatlist #5538 would be my last. Since that post a number of other people have joined in the discussion, both on this list and off, and I have spent a number of hours doing research on the subject and I want to share what I’ve found.
Warning, this post is long and contains a lot of references.
Summary: I think the Board made a bad decision using County funds to purchase an option for the CAM. It appears that even basic questions were not asked, the option benefits too few people at the cost of the many, and it is such a long shot the County would have done better to invest the funds in Powerball. A better solution would have been to invest in Broadband Internet infrastructure and training in that part of the county to develop more small to medium sized businesses.
I was only tangentially aware of the Chatham-Siler City Advanced Manufacturing Site until I read an article in the /Chatham Record/ that mentioned the sale price for the site was $30K an acre. With 1800+ acres that comes to over $54 million dollars. When that much money is involved my radar goes off, because unless we as citizens are vigilant it is too easy for something of that size to become corrupt.
The more I dug into it, the worse it got. No one seems to be able to justify the number. There are no references to an appraisal, etc. It turns out that most of the land is owned by two people. As Doug Nicholas points out in Chatham Chatlist #5540, the tax value on the land is a small fraction of the asking price. Since this price was determined by “a willing Seller and willing Buyer” it seems only fair that the County restate the tax value on the land, right? I mean, if someone is sitting on a $54 million asset the County should tax it appropriately, although I am certain that won’t happen. This makes me angry, as the County sees fit to tax my old horse trailer and even older work trailer, as well as the amount of printer paper my business owns, but two wealthy land owners get away with paying considerably less than their fair share.
Taxes aside, I’ve been told that the land is worth so much because it is “unique”.
Seems like NC is full of megasites. There’s another one in Kingsboro.
This got me thinking: how many megasites are there in the US? Turns out it’s a lot. The premiere place people go for such information is called Site Selection Magazine. For 12 years they have published a list of “Super Sites” (PDF), and the latest list is from January of 2016.
That list includes a whopping 15 sites in North Carolina, although I found it ironic that only the Kingsboro site made that list. If the CAM has been marketing that site for years, shouldn’t Google’s number one hit for lists of megasites include a mention? Again, just a data point suggesting our money may not be well spent.
We were told that the State will not market the property unless it is until County control. Is that written down anywhere? As someone who identifies as a left-leaning libertarian, I demand transparency from my government. What are the rules? How will they promote these sites? In what order? Were any promises made specifically about the CAM?
Of course, the Board wouldn’t have spent $500K+ on a handshake, right? And does this mean the County will need to buy the Moncure site as well, for it to be even considered?
The Site Selection list includes over 190 possible sites. Considering that three of the ones in North Carolina are missing, it makes sense to conclude that there are well over 200 such sites in the US, which means to compete, North Carolina is going to have to stand out.
Well, the General Assembly has made it perfectly clear that North Carolina is open for business, as long as you are white, heterosexual, Christian and preferably male. With the Assembly’s focus on such things as Amendment One, HB2, limiting women’s access to health care, a ban on sharia law, and the Voter ID Act, they have made North Carolina a “hands off” state for investment, especially by the large and diverse companies that are the target of the megasites.
You may think no one notices, but I travel a lot for my job, and the subject comes up in England. It comes up in Germany. It comes up in Japan. You don’t know how embarrassing it can be to be in England, come downstairs for breakfast and hear these things being talked about on the BBC. Wikipedia refers to House Bill 2 as the “most anti-LGBT legislation in the United States” and lists seven references.
People notice. When performers like Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam and Cirque du Soleil cancel shows, it reminds me of the Artists United Against Apartheid movement – just replace “Sun City” with “North Carolina”.
And before you run out and grab your label maker to print up a bunch “crazy liberal” stickers to put on me, I want to point out that, while currently unaffiliated, the only political party I’ve ever belonged to is the Republican party. I served as a page for both Frank Redding and Harold Brubaker back when the Republicans sat in the back of the chamber. He led the charge to get to the front and served for two terms as the Speaker of the House. I haven’t talked to him in awhile but I’m certain he’d be embarrassed by what his legacy has become.
The final point I want to bring up about this Board’s decision is that it sets a bad precedent. The half a million dollars spent only gets an option for a little more than a year. Based on the evidence above – many options elsewhere and North Carolina’s current business climate – no one is buying the megasite in a year.
So, about this time next year, expect debate on renewing the option. I predict we’ll hear the words “but we’re so much closer now” to justify an even higher price for the next option (on land that will still be valued at a fraction of the asking price). The Board will feel a lot of pressure to renew, since “heck, we’ve already spent a half a million
dollars so we can’t let that go to waste”.
And what bothers me the most is that we come across as desperate. In The Chatham Record Jim Crawford states “If we don’t do it … then we have nothing”. No one wants to invest billions in a place that is desperate.
This bothers me because I love living in Chatham County. I grew up in Asheboro, but when I turned 18 I moved to Los Angeles, never to return. Now I live in what I refer to as “God’s Own Earth” and I believe the situation is only desperate when we pin all our hopes on the CAM.
I run a computer software company based in Pittsboro. We have customers in 29 countries, including two of the Fortune 5. While small (we have about 15 people) I calculate we indirectly bring about $100K a year into the county, in food, gas, lodging and other purchases. While that isn’t a lot, if we can encourage more small to medium business, those numbers will add up, and we won’t be dependent on a single company.
The key is reliable Broadband Internet.
Look, manufacturing is down in the United States. There is a great article called “Manufacturing Moved South, Then Moved Out” that talks about it.
Manufacturing jobs in the US peaked in the 1970s. The CAM seems to be focused on luring an auto maker, but the US auto makers simply reopen shuttered facilities in Michigan (that article explicitly compared manufacturing jobs in NC to those in Michigan). I doubt foreign car manufacturers will come here due to the political climate.
However, with Broadband Internet access, we can open up a large number of doors and opportunities.
Most of Chatham County does not have access to Broadband, defined by the FCC as 25Mbps download speed. Heck, the best I can get at my home is 10Mbps DSL and I’m grateful for it.
Let’s turn Siler City into a Wired City. Not only do we need infrastructure, we need training to show people how to use it.
This doesn’t mean that I expect artists and farmers to become computer programmers. While we should encourage young people to consider programming as a career, Broadband brings so much more. I have a friend who is a technical writer, but she can work from home. When American Airlines declared bankruptcy, they closed a Call Center. The employees had the choice to move, or work from home. Many do.
While commercial agriculture has shifted to a few large companies, small, boutique organic farms are in demand and can demand much higher prices. Broadband can help create a market.
Think of the artists and other “makers” in the County. We should create an e-commerce site to manage the selling of their work. Let’s create a marketplace website, show people how to use it, and then provide facilities where high quality photos can be taken, or even videos, to best promote their work.
It can be done, but let’s approach this from a position of strength and not weakness. Let’s spend the County’s money on projects that benefit the most and most needy, and not on pipe dreams that immediately benefit the few.
Thanks for your time.
 Randall Riggsbee, “Board OK’s option on Megasite”, The Chatham Record, Vol. 96, No. 23, 21 April 2016, page 2.