There are impact projects that can expand Sampson County’s tax base, notably around Interstate 40, but the two-year time frame it takes to develop those projects on the local end is an obstacle that has cut into the number of interested prospects.
John Swope, executive director of the Sampson County Economic Development Commission, recently gave an outline of Sampson’s economic future to county officials, with a focus around I-40.
“Economic development is about being prepared,” Swope said. “We have to be able to talk to our prospects today. I have to be able to tell them that we have, or don’t have, what they are looking for.”
That is not just about the size, location and physical characteristics of the site, but questions about water and sewer service, infrastructure, environmental hazards and geotechnical soil questions. “We have to be able to answer those questions quickly,” Swope noted.
He said having those answers immediately, along with prep work completed, could be the difference between having a 300,000 square feet distribution center that brings in $30 million or a manufacturing plant that brings $125 million in investment. Numbers of jobs can range from a few hundred to well over 1,000 — or no investment or jobs at all.
“Our goal is to grow Sampson County’s tax base so that our municipalities can provide services to the citizens that are needed. And with that is a challenge,” said Swope. “You look at the budget and you say how are we going to do this? Every year, it is a challenge. Our goal is to help with that challenge.”
Swope pointed out two projects, one being the long-discussed poultry-litter incineration plant Fibrowatt, which has not come to fruition, and biorefinery Chemtex, which is currently in the works for location in the Clinton Industrial Rail Park.
Chemtex would bring a taxable investment of $90 million, or 2.2 percent of tax base, and pay $650,000 in property taxes the first year. Fibrowatt, which proposed an investment of $145 million, or 3.57 percent of the county’s total tax base, has not happened after Sampson was announced as the site nearly five years ago.
“Fibrowatt, unfortunately, has not come around to reality,” said Swope. “They picked Sampson County, they wanted to come to Sampson County. If they had gotten a power purchase agreement back in 2008 or 2009, their plant would be up and running and they would be paying a property tax bill of $1 million (the first year). We would have given a portion of that back as incentives, but that is a significant tax bill.”
Swope said he is optimistic about Chemtex, a company that has pointed to Clinton as its prime destination but a plant opening is at least two years away and everything is still very much in the works.
Swope said it was important to appreciate the exits Sampson County has on the interstate, as well as the county’s strategic location between major ports, RDU Airport, regional metro areas and military bases.
“We have good regional assets we’re right in the middle of,” he noted. “Just about every prospect that contacts us says we want to be within an hour of a major airport. We’re very fortunate that we’re an hour from Raleigh-Durham Airport. We’re also fortunate that we’re an hour from the Port of Wilmington.”
About 35 percent of the projects that looked at the Southeast region of North Carolina in the past year were “port-related,” said Swope, meaning they would utilize the port and could not be more than an hour away from it.
“We’re one of only two counties that can say we’re within an hour of the Wilmington port and within an hour of Raleigh-Durham Airport,” Swope noted. “That’s one of our significant, unique advantages.”
There are two huge resources along I-40, including Exits 348 and 355. Even if just one-fourth of the buildable acres are developed on those exits, the tax revenue would still be substantial.
According to Swope, Exit 348 has 1,028 buildable acres. Should all land be developed, the taxable building investment would be about $493 million. With 25 percent success, that would be roughly $123 million, with property taxes of $1,596,376.
Exit 355 has 1,180 buildable acres and the total taxable building investment would be about $566 million. With 25 percent success, that would be roughly $141 million and a tax bill of $1,849,460. Even cutting that in half, from 25 percent to 12 percent, the tax revenue would still be around $900,000, Swope said.
“What that shows is the potential of our interchanges to develop into tax revenue-generating resources,” he remarked.
The potential property tax base could have a stabilizing and strengthening effect on the overall tax base in Sampson. Currently, the county requires a two-year time frame to ready those sites with water and sewer, and related infrastructure — some prospects are out immediately when hearing that.
“If you have the water and sewer in place and have these analysis and tests in place, you get a whole lot more prospects than if you don’t,” Swope said. “Right now, we’re getting prospects on I-40 that are going to take a two-year timeframe. There are potential opportunities and examples of site projects we are working to attract, but we are limited because we don’t have infrastructure at the interstate and don’t have analysis done.”
The Newton Grove exits have water and sewer, but “not huge volumes,” said Swope. One problem is finding sizable acreage sites so impact projects — the distribution sites and manufacturing plants — can be developed, said Swope.
“Now we’re in a position that we can compete if a project takes two years. We can meet that time frame,” he said. “If they can get their distribution center or manufacturing plant up in a year, we can’t make it in a year. I know we can recruit those kinds of projects that can make a difference, but we’ll be limited in the number of projects we can recruit because the ones that only have a year timeframe — we won’t get their attention.”
‘Doesn’t look good’
With Chemtex, he said, it is going to take four to six months for engineering, four to six months to obtain right of way easements for water and sewer lines and more than a year for construction. “You’re up against 22 months there,” said Swope. “Most projects don’t have that amount of time.”
Local limitations are not just at I-40, but also N.C. 24. Limited existing utilities, especially in the western part of the county, are not abundant and would need to be established or extended.
Swope said it was important to get the kind of impact projects that could not just garner tax dollars, but improve the quality of life for all citizens of the county. He expressed the desire for the Board of Commissioners to meet with the Economic Development Commission to further discuss how Sampson’s ability to recruit industry can be enhanced.
“When I look at the bottom line, what is done in terms of the industry that is coming to Sampson County in the last 10 years, it just doesn’t look good to me,” said Commissioner Albert Kirby. “It does not look like we’ve brought in a lot of business. It seems like there hasn’t been a lot of headway.”
Swope said he and the EDC Advisory Board believe there is a direction Sampson should go to reach its potential, but it needs further discussion with county officials.
“We have an idea. We think we can advance Sampson County,” he said. “It involves money: not property tax money but part of the general obligation. We would like to talk to you about this very thing.”
Those ideas revolve around I-40, which Swope said is vital to Sampson’s success.
“As an economic developer, I wouldn’t want to be in a county that doesn’t have an interstate. I want to be there. Site location consultants consider those like gold, if you have an interstate and exits,” Swope told commissioners. “We would like to talk to you more about that in the future.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.