Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Wise water moves paves Lee County’s success path

Last week, I heard an interesting presentation by a couple of economic developers from Sanford, the county seat of Lee County. The forum was a meeting of the Working Group on Economic Development at UNC’s Global Research Institute, led by economic historian Peter Coclanis.

The speakers were Jimmy Randolph and Todd Tucker of the Sanford Area Growth Alliance, which is a joint effort of Sanford, Lee County, the town of Broadway and the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce. Randolph, SAGA’s CEO, is a 1990 UNC Chapel Hill graduate who joined the alliance in 2018. Tucker came to SAGA as economic development director last summer after a career with NC Commerce, Progress Energy and Surry County. Both grew up in nearby Harnett County.

Jimmy Randolph

Sanford got started in the 19th century around two rail lines and it grew into a manufacturing town. Sanford became famous for its bricks, some 10% of the nation’s brick output by the late 1950s. Textiles, tobacco and furniture fell to foreign competition and automation, a common story in many rural North Carolina counties, but Lee had a good manufacturing workforce and local politicians with vision. 

Sanford built new water and wastewater treatment facilities around 50 years ago, which was a big, smart bet on the future and helps explain its strategic importance today. 

“Todd and I thank them every day,” says Randolph, “because the water and wastewater resources that’s available in Sanford right now have actually been a critical part of the equation for some of the largest economic development projects ever to choose to locate in North Carolina.” 

Todd Tucker

It hasn’t been easy for Sanford and Lee County.  Making the transition from the old manufacturing to the new manufacturing was painful. In 2009, the jobless rate in the county was around 16% at one point. Today, it is 3.9%, lower than a year ago, and before automaker VinFast is scheduled to start production in 2025.

Crucial to VinFast

Across the river from Sanford in Chatham County is the Triangle Innovation Point megasite, where EV manufacturer VinFast could ultimately employ 7,500 workers. 

“VinFast would not have located in Chatham County without access to Sanford water and sewer,” says Randolph. “It would not have happened.”  (It also helped that the Golden LEAF foundation came up with $50 million to help Sanford pay for the water and sewer infrastructure for the project.)

Fast-growing Holly Springs and Fuquay-Varina, suburban towns in Wake County, are new partners in a major expansion to Sanford’s water plant. Pittsboro, the county seat of Chatham, has recently merged its utility system with Sanford, and that will accommodate the massive Chatham Park development – 60,000 residents over the next 20 years. Sanford already serves up U.S. 421 in Chatham to Goldston, and is working on a wastewater treatment project with Siler City, further west up 421,  where Wolfspeed is building a new plant. 

So decisions made by officials in Sanford in the late 1960s are still resonating. It wasn’t easy, because in the decade of the ‘60s, Lee County hadn’t grown much, less than 4,000 residents,  and Sanford, the county seat, lost a little population.

VinFast Manufacturing Facility Groundbreaking

The city’s water source was an old open-pit mine with a capacity of around a million gallons a day.

“At that point,” says Randolph, “we had an opportunity to tap into the Cape Fear River for a water supply. And if you’re going to make that investment, you think about economies of scale. Do we build 5 million gallons of capacity, or do we build 10 million or 12 million gallons of capacity. And the decision was made that, you know, we’re looking out 25 to 30 years and not just five years.”  So they built 12 million gallons a day of water treatment capacity from the Cape Fear and a wastewater treatment plant that had 12 million gallons of capacity. 

Sanford has the right to withdraw around 41 million gallons of water. “Can’t process all that right now,” says Tucker, “but we got the permits to do it.  We can just expand the plant to do that.’

Sanford built that platform, originally to handle the demands of development in what is now a 65,000 population county, more than twice what it was in 1970. It turned out to be the crucial infrastructure for the new economy of the region, 50 years later. 

“At this point, the proposed expansion to that 12 million gallon [water] capacity is to go to 30. And the project is underway. It’s about a $290 million investment,” says Randolph, “which would have been impossible for Sanford to do alone, but between these partners, it makes sense to do that.”

With the merger with Pittsboro, the wastewater plant will go from 12 million to 18 million gallons a day. 

Major projects like VinFast and Wolfspeed in Chatham are going to provide jobs for folks in Lee County. But SAGA exists to recruit businesses to Lee County, to build up the local tax base.

“Ultimately, at the end of the day,” says Tucker,  “we are judged by what happens in Lee County and Sanford.  All the regional stuff is great, and we all like that.  But at the end of the day, our funders go ‘So what have you done for us lately?’ We have to be mindful of that.”

Since 2014, when SAGA was created from the merger of the county’s economic development arm and the chamber, the county’s tax base has grown from less than $5 billion to $8.75 billion, says Randolph.  Some of that was revaluation, but “We know we’ve played a role in that.”

The county has had a number of high-profile wins in recent years, including Pfizer’s investment of $500 million in its gene therapy operations. Employees come from 17 counties to Pfizer’s Lee County operations, and, with Caterpillar, is one of the county’s largest employers.

Abzena, a life sciences contract manufacturing company, opened a plant, which was subsequently bought by Pfizer. An Indian automotive components manufacturer, Bharat Forge America, opened a facility in Sanford. Another gene therapy operation, Astellas, opened in the 750-acre Central Carolina Enterprise Park.

Geography helps

The county has a good location, in the middle of three of the state’s economic engines. To the north is the Raleigh-Durham market, with three world-class universities and Research Triangle Park.

To the west, up U.S. 421, is the Triad, and the new Toyota battery plant southeast of Greensboro in Randolph County, bringing more than 5,000 jobs. To the southeast is Fayetteville and Fort Liberty, the largest Army base in the country, with nearly 50,000 soldiers and 16,000 civilian personnel.  

In a decade, possibly, U.S. 421 will become Interstate 685 from Greensboro to I-95. The Carolina Core, as the corridor is known, is taking off, with Toyota, Wolfspeed and VinFast. And 685 will come right by Sanford.

The county’s getting ready. The national builders are already there.  Over the past three years, the county has approved plans for 10,000 residential units.

Randolph and Tucker are cautious. A big part of the appeal of Lee County is its rural quality.  Randolph is on the board of the Triangle Land Conservancy. Which isn’t that unusual for an economic developer who grew up in and around the Sandhills. It is consistent with the balance they are aiming to achieve.

“We don’t want to be Cary. We don’t want to be Raleigh,” says Tucker.


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