NC trend: Chatham County’s new growth strategy

 In October 2021

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From July 2019 to August 2021, 23 large corporate expansions were announced for Durham, Wake, Johnston, Orange and Lee counties. Neighboring Chatham County courted many of those companies, as well as others, but none materialized.

Sanford and Lee County won a $200 million Abzena biotech plant in April, while Holly Springs and Wake County landed a $550 million Amgen project in August.

It isn’t for a lack of trying. For years, Chatham has been the state’s only county with two industrial megasites: the Chatham Advanced Manufacturing site in the western part of the county and Triangle Innovation Point, a 2,150-acre project on the eastern side, near U.S. 1 between Raleigh and Sanford.

Those two developments “put us in the middle of a lot of interesting conversations,” says Michael Smith, president of Chatham County Economic Development Corp. “The CAM site was one of the final three sites for the Toyota/Mazda project, and Tesla looked at the [Triangle Innovation] site. The fact that those projects looked closely at Chatham County [suggests] exciting opportunities are coming for our community.” Toyota/Mazda chose Alabama for a big factory, while Tesla picked Austin, Texas.

Now Chatham’s strategy has changed for the Triangle Innovation development, which was formerly known as the Moncure megasite. Denver-based Kaplan Brokerage Group owns the site, with real estate services company JLL handling marketing. Instead of trying for a single big manufacturer, they’re envisioning a multiuser campus with sites ranging from 10 acres to 1,000 acres, says Matt Winters, a JLL executive vice president in Raleigh. Life-sciences companies, manufacturers and distribution centers are showing interest.

“We are in active negotiations with companies needing 100,000 to 1 million square feet of finished building space, as well as with potential campus users in need of several hundred acres,” Winters says.

The strategy shift creates an advantage for the region, says Melissa Smith, vice president of business recruitment and development at the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. “Until it gets further developed it can still be marketed as a megasite, but opening it up to the potential for development as a mega-park makes a lot of sense,” she says. “[The site] is in play for a number of projects.”

While commercial development lags, Chatham has seen dramatic residential growth as the state’s third-fastest growing county over the last decade. It is home to more than 76,200 people, a 17% increase from 2010. New residents are flocking to areas such as the 1,800-acre Briar Chapel neighborhood south of Chapel Hill, where 2,000 home sites have been under development since 2008. Then there’s the county’s signature community, the 7,068-acre Chatham Park, which broke ground in 2014 with 22,000 homes planned over the next 25 years.

While Chatham has been figuring out its future, neighboring Lee County has attracted a series of large corporate expansions. “In Lee County, we’ve seen the success that comes with good partners, planning and figuring out what you want development to look like,” Melissa Smith says. That’s now happening at the various industrial parks in Chatham, which is “strategically positioned for success as the next puzzle piece for industrial development in the Triangle.”

More than 20,000 Chatham residents commute to jobs outside the county, providing a key labor pool for Research Triangle Park, Raleigh-Durham International Airport and other major employment areas. The county is fortunate to have sites ready for businesses to develop.

“Speed to market is very important with the companies looking for projects in North Carolina,” Winters says.

Triangle Innovation has the zoning in place for heavy industrial projects and key infrastructure, enabling companies to build a plant fairly quickly.

Some early interest in the project involves about 400 acres known as Tip West, where a former Performance Fibers plant closed in 2014 and was demolished. Infrastructure such as utilities and sewer remain, so Winters anticipates a speculative facility will be under construction by the end of the year and completed in late 2022. Tip West is a joint venture with Samet Corp., a general contracting firm based in Greensboro, and Lee-Moore Capital, a Sanford-based developer led by CEO Kirk Bradley.

Having a building ready for occupancy will be an asset, particularly for international companies looking to launch their first U.S. operations, says Al Williams, a JLL vice president who is also working on the project. “We saw a significant amount of interest in an existing building we had in Goldsboro from international companies that didn’t have an existing presence in the U.S.”

Melissa Smith expects the Triangle Innovation project to follow the example of the Grounds of Concord in Cabarrus County. The former site of a giant Philip Morris cigarette plant and a failed battery manufacturer, it recently landed three big companies that plan more than $1 billion in investment for beverage manufacturing and distribution plants totaling 3 million square feet by 2027.

“We’ve seen what has happened there, and I think Chatham County is positioned well to be that next thing,” she says. “If manufacturers want suppliers close by — and that was the driver at Grounds of Concord — then a 2,100-acre opportunity like [Triangle Innovation] that can be carved out around a specific set of needs is ideal.” ■

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