Landowners wary of Randolph 'megasite' [News & Record, Greensboro, N.C.]
(News & Record (Greensboro, NC) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 24--LIBERTY -- For a city dweller, this wide-open farmland in northeast Randolph County looks like a scenic foothills retreat.
The people who live on these 2,000 acres see home, heritage and comfort in the rolling fields.
Now, they see trouble rolling in.
With the help of state and regional economic developers, Randolph County wants to get control of between 1,000 and 2,000 acres to recruit a major manufacturer.
It already has a strong toehold toward that goal.
By the end of March, the county said, it will control about 730 acres right down the middle of the site.
County Manager Richard Wells said the county is using about $500,000 of a $1.7 million state grant to buy or put deposits on two tracts, and the deals are almost worked out.
The land would need water, and Wells said Greensboro would be the likely source.
Stephen Drew, the city's water resources director, said a feasibility study is already on file. The 2011 report shows that the site would need 16 miles of water lines along Liberty Road at a cost of $11.6 million. Add a sewer lift station at $9.6 million and the estimated cost would be $21.3 million.
Greensboro Mayor Robbie Perkins said the city has been talking with Randolph County for more than a year, and he believes the city should support job development nearby.
"Greensboro would certainly be a beneficiary of any megasite in northern Randolph County," he said.
Wells said the county would need a minimum of 1,000 acres before it could show the site to companies that might be interested.
No company is lined up for the site, and it could take years before the right business comes along. But developed land is a crucial lure, experts said.
* * *
Many property owners are not interested in selling at any price. Some said the land is a part of history.
"I sleep in the same bed I was born in," said Linda Leonard, 67, who is the fifth generation to live on farmland her family has owned since 1836.
She lived for years in the Randolph County town of Ramseur. When she moved back to the family farm, she knew it would be her last move.
"It's a unique neighborhood," she said. "And it is a neighborhood. People that live four or five miles away, they're our neighbors. It's more than just a house. It's more than just land."
The region's economic development coordinator, the Piedmont Triad Partnership, believes the land is special but in a very different way. It's considered among the best in the state for recruiting what the group's president calls an economic "game changer" for the region.
That game changer would be something like an auto plant, similar to the plant BMW operates near Greenville, S.C.
But it takes a fully developed piece of land to even get in the game of recruitment, economic developers said.
Manufacturers don't look for raw land; they look for finished sites. It's like inventory in a retail store, one official said.
This land is an excellent candidate, officials said.
U.S. 421 skirts the land on the southwest, and the Norfolk Southern railroad borders the northern part of the property. Rail is essential for major auto manufacturers, who use complex rail yards to load cars for worldwide destinations.
* * *
This 12-county region has suffered a crippling decline in traditional job generators such as textiles, apparel and tobacco makers.
David Powell, the partnership's president, said the region lost 90,000 jobs between 2000 and 2010.
The state has split $5 million three ways to assemble a megasite. Two Piedmont Triad counties -- Randolph and Davidson -- got $1.7 million grants in January. Davidson is working to acquire about 1,000 acres in the Linwood community beside Interstate 85.
Powell did not return a call seeking comment for this story, but in a column in today's Ideas section, he writes:
"Last year, Piedmont Triad Partnership adopted a 'megasite' as a game-changer economic development strategy that can bring direct and indirect jobs numbering in the thousands by attracting a large-scale advanced manufacturer to the region."
The partnership is directly involved in the effort to assemble the property in Liberty.
It formed a limited liability company, Alpath Capital, in early 2012 to handle the process.
To Powell and Bonnie Renfro, president of the Randolph County Economic Development Corp., the entire megasite effort is about preparation.
"In my world, when we talk with companies ... by the time they're thinking about a project of any size at all, they've done their work internally," Renfro said.
The group already has done a "desktop" analysis of the land, she said, mapping out a footprint for a likely manufacturing building and other structures.
* * *
Those who would have to live near the development -- or eventually sell out -- understand that the region needs jobs.
But they also feel they're entitled to preserving the history of their land and their families.
Clara Young, 75, Linda Leonard's sister, recalled that slaves once worked the land. She's dispassionate about that history, not proud.
She knows that history is important. But she worries about the future and enjoys the now.
"Where I live, I can't see any houses around me," Young said. "It is so peaceful."
But she and her neighbors are putting the future on hold.
Some want to redecorate.
Others want to build houses for their adult children on family land.
"We don't even do repairs to our homes that we would like to do," Leonard said. "We've put everything on hold."
Sixty fellow property owners belong to the Northeast Randolph Property Owners, a nonprofit formed to push back against the development and force county leaders to respect their rights.
Alan Ferguson, a Greensboro real estate attorney who lives across Troy Smith Road from the proposed development, organized the group because he doesn't want to see the beauty and quality of life ruined by development.
He could live anywhere in Greensboro, Ferguson said, but he bought 50 acres so he could enjoy the view, his horses and the quiet life.
Ferguson said people "live out there because they want to live out there. David (Powell) sees it as undeveloped property. We see it as highly developed property."
* * *
Bobby Ferguson -- no relation to Alan -- knows both sides of the tension between big business and owners of such pastoral land.
He lives on property his father bought 70 years ago.
He also worked for telecom giant Lucent and its predecessors as an electrical engineer for 31 years. Ferguson spent his career dealing with the laws of physics and the complexities of business.
A meticulous man, he said he's baffled by this situation.
Ferguson is angry because he hasn't heard anything about what the county might offer for the land.
"I have never received an offer. I have never been told what they would pay," he said.
Alan Ferguson said rough calculations show that the total 2,000-acre site is worth about $12 million.
Prices by acre can vary by the number of buildings and other improvements, but that's an average of about $6,000.
Bobby Ferguson lives on 15 acres next to two more parcels that his family owns.
The 68-year-old loves to collect building materials and other things that he calls "customized junk." He even has a red caboose parked down the hill from his house.
He likes to piddle, as he puts it. He "literally" built the family home over 10 years while they lived in a trailer home on the property.
Bobby Ferguson grew up here, but he has lived in New Jersey managing major Lucent projects for the U.S. Department of Defense.
And he understands the art of the deal. He said he thinks the county, Renfro and others are holding cards they haven't revealed.
H.R. Gallimore, the Asheboro commercial real estate agent who is managing the process, came by to see him a few months ago. Gallimore told him, Bobby Ferguson recalled, "you're not going to be rolling in money, but you'll get a fair price."
He still doesn't know what that is.
Bobby Ferguson has big plans for improving his property. But "why would I go spend $10,000 to build a workshop and move in a year "
He recalls the time when he had a really bad day while working on the new house. His daughter, 7 or 8 years old, saw his frustration.
"She knew I was really, really bent out of shape," he said. "And on one of those studs she wrote, 'I love you Daddy,' and that makes this house worth more than a million dollars. That gives it character."
* * *
Gallimore said that, initially, secrecy was crucial for the project.
"Early on in the project, there was a good bit of confidentiality because of not being able to reveal some of the details," he said. "That upset some of the property owners."
County Manager Wells said the county wants to put every detail of the process "on the front page" to be completely transparent.
He said the county would be happy with a smaller site to recruit a lower-profile company.
But a bigger company can attract suppliers with more jobs.
Landowners are all for jobs. But they see their land as a way of life.
Carole Yow, 71, has lived here for 35 years, but the native of Ohio is still laughingly called the resident outsider.
"I'm from Cleveland," she said. "We had the Chevy plant and the Ford plant. I've been there. You don't want to be near it."
Staff Writer Amanda Lehmert contributed to this report.
Contact Richard M. Barron at 373-7371.
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