BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Leland has formed a non-profit task force to “rebrand” an industrial park, taking an active role in the economic development of the area, even though it sits largely outside its municipal limits.
The town of Leland successfully annexed a 3-acre portion of a several-hundred-acre industrial park in Brunswick County in June, but most of the park remains in unincorporated land. However recent rebranding efforts endorsed by the town, which aim to steer the park towards becoming part of Leland, have left county officials out of the loop.
Last month, Leland hosted a meeting to introduce a new task force, Leland Innovation Park, Inc., to tenants and property owners of the existing Leland Industrial Park. According to an Internal Revenue Service document, the task force was just recently awarded 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status on June 4.
In an email inviting stakeholders to the task force’s introductory meeting, Leland’s economic and community development director, Gary Vidmar, told recipients about the group’s plan to “rebrand” the park.
An industrial park in “deteriorating condition,” Vidmar wrote about the need to improve its “poor curb appeal” to attract new companies. Formed to promote economic development in northern Brunswick County, the letter states the task force is beginning to rebrand the identity of the park.
Leland Innovation Park, Inc.
Leland’s economic development committee identified the potential of the industrial park on Highway 74/76 at its first meeting on Nov. 10, 2016, Vidmar said.
At almost every meeting for nearly two years, the committee discussed the park, which at the time had no incorporated, industrially-zoned land.
While the town does not currently provide utility services to the park, it would receive property tax from voluntarily-annexed parcels. “This is a clear economic strategy for our Town,” Gene Merritt, a former member of Leland’s economic development committee, said in a meeting last year.
Though the task force has discussed the park during Leland’s economic development committee meetings for nearly two years, was started by a former town committee member, and included the cooperation of multiple town staff members, Vidmar said the rebranding initiative is not being led by Leland.
“The rebranding initiative is led by [Gene Merritt] and Leland Innovation Park, Inc. and not by the Town of Leland,” Vidmar wrote in an email.
Merritt, a real estate developer and urban economic development consultant, was appointed to Leland’s economic development committee in Aug. 2017. He stepped down in June to work on the task force.
As president of the task force, Merritt said the group’s voluntary efforts are meant to serve the general public and denied annexation was the task force’s goal.
“It is not our purpose to try to facilitate the voluntary annexation of the Leland industrial park into Leland,” he said. “That’s not who we are and what we’re for; that’s not our business.”
By working in partnership with existing economic development groups in the area, Merritt said Leland Innovation Park, Inc. will bring the park together.
“We are not some little secret organization hiding behind the door somewhere,” he said. “We’re actually going to be very transparent and out there in front of the world.”
Shortly after Leland Innovation Park, Inc. received tax-exempt status in June, Leland successfully annexed its first industrially-zoned parcel in the park. The annexation had been underway since the 3-acre parcel’s owner, Kingfish Investment Properties, LLC, submitted a petition to be formally annexed on Sept. 28, 2017.
On June 21, Leland’s Town Council approved an annexation agreement between the town and Navassa for a 3-acre satellite parcel. Because the parcel was closer to Navassa, Leland’s annexation required the town’s agreement, per current annexation laws.
While Vidmar denied Leland was leading the rebranding effort, and Merritt denied that annexation was the end goal of that effort, Leland has a clear desire to annex the land. In a request for action outlining the background of the June 21 annexation for Council, the town’s objective to annex properties in the park is clearly stated.
“Staff is confident that this support will incentivize many of the property owners of both developed and undeveloped property in the Park to petition the Town to voluntarily annex,” the memo states.
Out of the loop
When the task force was introduced July 26 at Leland Town Hall, Brunswick County’s Board of Commissioners Chairman Frank Williams had few details as to what was being planned. He said that, though he was invited, he did not know what was going to be discussed until the day of the meeting.
“I had heard rumors of the project in the weeks leading up to July 26, but was not aware of the details or specifics of it prior to that meeting,” Williams wrote in an email.
During the meeting, Williams shared his concerns with the audience. Williams said that the task force presentation implied the county has been involved in the rebranding efforts, however, Williams said he felt the county had not been adequately briefed.
“While perhaps an innocent oversight or misstatement, one of my primary concerns was that it was implied that the county had weighed in in support of the initiative, when in fact we had not discussed or adopted any formal position on it,” Williams wrote. “Additionally, I felt there was not enough input and engagement from key stakeholders whose support is necessary for such an effort to succeed.”
Though county officials may not have been fully briefed on the task force’s introductory meeting, Vidmar said the county has been privy to Leland’s economic development committee’s meetings.
“Former County economic development officials attended many of these meetings and were part of these discussions,” Vidmar said. “In addition, separate meetings were held by some [economic development committee] members with these former and current County [economic development] officials as well as Brunswick Community College representatives.”
Since the introductory meeting, Williams said he has personally met with several key stakeholders. He remains “cautiously optimistic” of a positive outcome at the industrial park.
“I have not yet made up my mind on the proposed re-branding of Leland Industrial Park,” Williams wrote. “I think the concept has positive potential, but I am still observing, studying and also considering whether there could be unintended adverse consequences of the specified re-branding effort in this particular case.”
Update: This article has been updated to remove a quote that was incorrectly attributed to Frank Williams.
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