The N.C. state budget approved last month included dozens of appropriations to N.C. municipalities, but a $34 million outlay to Sanford stands out as a signal of a potentially gigantic economic development project.
The earmark is tied to a planned $270 million expansion of Sanford’s water plant to support a possible semiconductor chip manufacturing project in adjoining Chatham County that Sanford Mayor Chet Mann says may become the biggest economic development project in N.C. history.
The line item reflects the ambitious approach by the Lee County city to continue pro-business strategies that have attracted more than $2 billion in investment in recent years, Mann says.
The multibillion semiconductor chip plant is being considered at Triangle Innovation Point on the eastern side of Chatham County near U.S. 1 between Raleigh and Sanford. Project details haven’t been disclosed because no decision has been made by the unnamed company considering an operation. Dozens of top N.C. political and economic development officials are familiar with the project.
Triangle Innovation, rebranded earlier this year from the Moncure megasite, is a joint venture involving Denver-based Kaplan Brokerage Group, Greensboro-based contractor Samet Corp., and Lee-Moore Capital, a Sanford-based developer led by Kirk Bradley. It is about 30 miles from Raleigh-Durham International Airport and 10 miles from the Triangle Expressway, which will someday loop Raleigh.
Chip plants require significant water and Sanford is positioned to be the source because of decades of planning by city officials, including Mann’s grandfather, who was the town’s mayor in the 1960s. The city’s water plant on the Cape Fear River is about 10 miles south of Triangle Innovation and 10 miles northeast of downtown Sanford.
“We’re preparing for the possibility of a chip plant, but some other major manufacturing players are also interested in that same site. We think that may be more of a reality,” Mann says.
Sanford has negotiated a plan in which it could receive as much as 20% of the property tax revenue from Triangle Innovation’s development. The city’s investment may total about $80 million, with other private and public sources making up the balance, Mann says.
“We don’t want to be the banker, we want to be an equity player,” he says. The goal is to help lower the water and sewer rates for its citizens while promoting regional economic growth.
Sanford’s water treatment plant is near the headwaters of the Cape Fear where the Deep, Haw and Rocky Rivers converge. It has a capacity of 12 million gallons per day, which would be significantly expanded with the new investment.
In 2016, the Golden LEAF Foundation provided Sanford a $4 million grant to extend wastewater to the megasite in a joint effort with Chatham County. In 2018, the city awarded $12 million in contracts to extend the city’s wastewater collection system to the Moncure site.
Investment in Lee County has surged in recent years highlighted by expansions by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, British biotech Abzena, India-based auto parts maker Bharat Forge and San Francisco-based Audentes Therapeutics, which is now called Astellas Gene Therapy.
“We’re learned to survive without a dependence on Raleigh-Durham,” says Mann, who has been mayor since 2013 and plans to run for reelection next year. “We’ve also been fortunate to have created a lot of entrepreneurs who believe in making things. We’re not a bedroom community.”