Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Pender prepares for major 421 utility extension, continues work on commerce park

Plans for the industrial building were submitted to Pender County earlier this week for a 15-acre site in the center of Pender Commerce Park, land pictured here to the right (southeast) of Acme Way. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Pender County is continuing its years-long efforts to attract industrial clients to the Pender Commerce Park. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

PENDER COUNTY –– Pender County is preparing to potentially invest millions into extending sewer services along a 5-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 421. 

Monday, commissioners unanimously initiated the process to solicit an engineering firm to design a utility project intended to help spur development on the western end of the county. 

RELATED: Rolling the dice: Speculative industrial developments on the rise after decade-long dry streak

The move costs nothing upfront. By December, commissioners are expected to approve engineering services for the selected firm and later would have to authorize a construction contract for work to begin. 

An unnamed developer is interested in a “sizable” and “primarily residential” project off Blueberry Road. Without sewer access, plans are at an impasse. 

County manager Chad McEwen said he wasn’t at liberty to disclose which developer is in talks with county leaders about the projects. “Our plans to run this line down 421 are not contingent upon their plans,” he said. “We see the growth opportunity for that corridor for economic development and growth purposes and want to accommodate that. That’s the main impetus for running that line.”

While the developer’s preliminary discussions arrived at a convenient time, the county isn’t wholly reliant upon the project coming to fruition. “We were planning on this anyway,” McEwen explained. 

Plans call for a 5-mile force main and lift station. The 10-inch main would stretch along the 421 right-of-way from Blueberry Road to reach the Pender Commerce Park’s existing wastewater treatment plant, an acclaimed facility that incorporates hydroponics in a greenhouse atmosphere to cleanse wastewater for redistribution. Built to treat a maximum of 500,000 gallons per day, the plant is currently operating at about 20% capacity. 

A new lift station near the intersection of Blueberry Road and 421 will be required to send wastewater to the plant down the new force main. A water transmission line already stretches down 421, and smaller lines serve areas within close reach of the proposed Blueberry Road project, according to McEwen. 

Pender Commerce Park 

After a nearly two-hour closed session Monday, commissioners emerged to enter into a contract to sell 39.5 acres it owns in the commerce park to Ramm Capital Partners LLC. 

The proposed sale price is $2.054 million, at $52,000 an acre. 

Last year, Chris Ramm, chief operating officer of Taylor Development Group and manager of Ramm Capital Partners, opened the first modern industrial speculative building the region had seen in over a decade at the Pender Commerce Park. The 126,360-square-foot building was one-quarter leased as of June. 

Ramm’s project kickstarted the recent speculative industrial building trend in the region, with roughly a half-million square feet of new space underway. 

Though the development team had announced plans for a second speculative building in fall 2020, Ramm told Port City Daily in June the project was still in flux. Land where the building was planned –– a 20-acre parcel near the park entrance –– remains in county ownership, according to property records. 

Property Ramm’s team recently submitted a proposal for it, located directly adjacent to the $8 million completed industrial warehouse. 

Monday, the county’s attorney said the property is already under contract with RealtyLink; for a new contract to move forward, Ramm Capital Partners must first obtain a release from RealtyLink (the initial proposed buyer) before the upset bid process is initiated. 

Last month, Wilmington Business Development announced RealtyLink was planning a $40 million cold storage facility at the park, adding up to 300,000 square feet of high-demand refrigerated and frozen space to the market.

According to McEwen, RealtyLink is eyeing a different county-owned parcel in the commerce park abutting the New Hanover County line.

Both Ramm Captial Partners and RealtyLink submitted offer proposals that would subdivide the parent 135-acre parcel off Corporate Drive (adjacent to FedEx Freight), with the former looking for about 40 acres and the latter for about 80 acres. Large swaths of this parcel are unusable given the presence of wetlands as the property approaches the Cape Fear River, McEwen explained.

Pender County owns hundreds of acres in and around the commerce park, part of an economic development plan nearly a decade in the making. After the BASF vitamin plant shuttered in 2009, the sprawling property sat dormant. 

“It was mostly vacant land,” McEwen said. 

Pender even owns land in New Hanover, as the county line bisects the old BASF plant property. In all, Pender acquired 740 acres from the vitamin manufacturer through two transactions in 2006 and 2010. 

After the purchases the county built roads, a stormwater system, and a water and sewer plant to prime the commerce park property for industrial tenants, attracting its first in Acme Smoked Fish in 2013. In the years since, other big players have joined, including FedEx, Coastal Beverages, Polyhose, and Empire Distributors.

Remnants of the old plant are still there, including several buildings, a couple warehouses, and an old water and sewer plant. Last month, the county issued a request for qualifications for a firm to oversee the demolition of all remaining items on the old BASF property. 

“We’re actively trying to demo the buildings … to get that property redeveloped for industrial sites as well,” McEwen said.

Compared to the eastern end of the county, where growth has erupted in the Hampstead area, the western end has lagged behind, with the commerce park an exception. McEwen said any growth is welcome along the 421 corridor –– industrial, residential, commercial, or a mix of all three. 

In the county’s 2017 land use plan, land surrounding Blueberry Road is designated as rural agricultural; the bulk of the land surrounding 421 between Blueberry Road and the commerce park is medium density residential; land approaching the commerce park is marked regional mixed-use and property closest to the park is designated as industrial.

“We have this infrastructure there, or will once we build this line, so it stands to reason that we would want it to be used,” he said. “Building it and not getting it used doesn’t get it paid for.”

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