Sunday, October 31, 2010

Industry prospects pick up steam

October 31, 2010 6:25 AM
Ragan Robinson

Donny Hicks says the industry recruitment business feels like 2005 again.

Companies are following up faster after preliminary requests for information.

There’s more momentum as a number of different corporations start the expansion ball rolling.

Industry has been sitting still for so long, Hicks says, “They feel like they have to do something.”

Hicks is the executive director of the Gaston County Economic Development Commission. The seven-person office he oversees is responsible for pouncing when a company shows an interest in building, expanding or relocating in the county. The economic development office also has a marketing component to make sure site selection consultants hear about Gaston County so the companies they work for will, too.

Hicks backs up his optimism with a lengthy prospect list, nearly 30 unnamed companies with thousands of potential jobs, he says have visited Gaston County.

He thinks most of them are poised to make a decision about location in the next few months.

Seven of the prospects are interested in the 4-acre Gastonia Technology Park, where the last phase of work on the land includes grading 74 acres and adding 2,000 feet of paved road to connect to N.C. 275, along with 2,000 feet of water line.

The county is on the short list for a number of the expansion and relocation plans, according to Hicks, who said all of those would be manufacturers.

But he says when companies get that close to a location, the intangibles take hold - the market, the building, the incentive package, even relationships or family that the county has no control over.

By that time the EDC has already filled hundreds of pages with information about what the county offers – from soil conditions, wages and worker information all the way to information as obscure as “vibration adjacency” and estimated electric cost per kilowatt hour.

How Gaston aims to LAND jobs, investment

Gaston County’s best bait for luring new jobs and tax dollars in the form of companies ready to move: Land, say Hicks and other county officials.

“We’ve been aggressive with land acquisition,” Hicks said. “For manufacturing, I think that makes us one of the frontrunners.”

The industries Gaston County targets for jobs and taxable investment are no longer interested in wooded, unprepared sites. Today, companies want land that is ready for construction, with water, sewer and enough power to serve the buildings. It means a greater investment in the county’s land, said County Manager Jan Winters, but it also means a better return.

Interest in economic development often focuses on jobs, but Winters points out that residents with a steady income, as well as other businesses, benefit from new and expanded industry as well. That’s because when the county can collect more in property taxes, it takes less from each one to keep the county going.

Cities benefit from Gaston’s scattered industrial parks and complexes because they often get major water or other utilities customers.

But the investment the Gaston County EDC can make in preparing sites is dwindling, said Matt Blackwell, who is in charge of capital improvements for the commission. The budget for those improvements went from $2 million to $1 million in the 2009-10 budget year. This year, it’s $250,000.

Even with construction prices 20 to 25 percent less than two years ago, a quarter-million dollars will build about 500 feet of road with sidewalks and trees, Blackwell said.

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