BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Late last month, Brunswick County approved a resolution in support of an economic incentive project in Navassa for a nameless company.
The county will pitch in $35,000, the resolution pledged, to match a $700,000 state rural building reuse grant application to attract the company the small town.
Other than the few details released in Brunswick County’s resolution, what else is considered public information?
”Nothing,” Hannah Morecraft, a North Carolina Department of Commerce spokesperson, said.
No public hearings
The public knows how many jobs the company might bring: 238. The county revealed the kind of company “Project Pavement” could attract: manufacturing. And it’s known where the company is considering relocating its New Jersey-based business to: 100 Quality Drive.
“Pavement” could be a nod to an asphalt plant, but that’s not clear. Other details about how public funds will be used likely won’t be released until the deal is already done, and aren’t considered public record.
“It’s really to protect the state’s leverage,” Morecraft said. “While a project is in that process of figuring all that out, it protects the ability to negotiate.”
At Brunswick County’s meeting last month, Commissioners voted to cancel a scheduled public hearing on the project. Questions about the project to the county were redirected to Brunswick Business and Industry Development (BID).
Bill Early, Brunswick BID’s director, said the North Carolina Department of Commerce does not hold public hearings on grant applications. When asked about whether the project will have water or air quality impacts, Early did confirm it will not. He also said the project, at this point, does not plan to use the rail line adjacent to the nearly 60-acre former U.S. Marine Corps building.
If Project Pavement is approved, according to the North Carolina Department of Commerce, it will be the county’s second incentivized project in five years. In 2017, the county pitched in a local match of $8,750 for a $175,000 building reuse state grant for ITI Technologies, Inc.
Located in the Leland Industrial Park, ITI Technology promised 35 full-time jobs as well as a $3,413,060 private-sector investment. Project Pavement’s economic investment is not yet publicly known.
Early said Project Pavement choosing Brunswick County could help diversify the local job market. But to attract the company, the county will have to beat out its competition.
“There is an enormous amount of competition for economic development projects across the state, nation and internationally,” Early said. “I believe this project, as with most economic development projects, is very important to any community seeking to create quality and diversity of jobs for its residents.”
The game of negotiating public incentives to secure economic development deals is all about competition. That’s according to Scott Millar, President of Catawba County Economic Development Corporation. Millar is credited with luring Apple to Maiden, North Carolina, a town of about 3,300.
“For competitive reasons, companies don’t want their competitors to know what they’re up to,” Millar said.
The point of secrecy
In 2009, Apple committed spending $1 billion in a 10-year period and hiring 50 direct and 150 indirect people to build its new data center in Maiden. In exchange, Catawba County granted Apple 50 percent of the property it used to develop the center, and 85 percent of the personal property it would use.
“We ended up getting Apple’s largest data center in the world,” he said. “We would have been stupid for not negotiating a win-win circumstance for us, even if it cost us.”
Apple ended up spending $4 billion and contracted out over 400 jobs, Millar said. In the meantime, Maiden lowered its tax rate, built a new fire station, police station, city hall and community center. None of that would have happened, according to Millar, if the public had gotten involved before the deal was done.
If the public knows, then the competition knows. “They were scouting out a lot of different sites before we landed them,” Millar said.
Millar said he’s actually lost projects because information about a project is leaked preemptively. “They don’t have to make these investments. They can make them in your town, they don’t have to make them at all,” he said.
Since his job involves mixing public dollars with private companies, Millar said it’s common for the public to question the secrecy. “People tend to think it’s giving this ‘fat cat’ company a lot of money for something that they’re going to do anyway,” he said.
But the decisions, Millar said, are based on what will benefit the community.
“We’re always trying to negotiate a better deal. That happens in car shopping and that happens in industry locations,” he said. “The reality is every consumer out here is using incentives every day.”
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