TOWNS JOIN FORCES TO GROW
Cornelius, Davidson and Huntersville hope to soon reap benefits from more than two years of joint economic development efforts.
By ERICA BESHEARS AND GILLIAN WEE, Charlotte Observer
January 31, 2005 - The towns are finalizing a deal to purchase 126 acres in Huntersville for an industrial park and are negotiating to land the site's first manufacturer.
The joint project is unusual in a region where neighboring governments often compete for businesses. Each town will offer the same incentives and share the costs and revenues of the industrial park.
Officials have declined to name their potential manufacturer because the deal is not final. However, Cabarrus County's industrial recruiter, John Cox, said Prairie Packaging of Bedford Park, Ill., had been looking to locate in Harrisburg. But the maker of disposable dinnerware is no longer looking there, Cox said, because he understands it's getting a better deal in Huntersville.
Leaders there say they must invest in job recruiting to make the area more than just a great place to live.
The residential building boom of the last 10 years created demand for road improvements, classroom seats, baseball fields and other services. Officials warn that either the quality of life or property tax bills will suffer if they don't add industrial and office property to the tax base. All three towns get more than 70 percent of their tax revenue from residential property.
Studies show residential development costs $1.50 in government services for every $1 added to the tax base, said Mark Heath, director of the Lake Norman Regional Economic Development Corp., an organization the three towns created about two years ago. Industrial development costs 31 cents in services for every dollar added. "We're trying to create more boardrooms and less bedrooms," Heath said. But the area faces stiff competition from other, already established business sites.
Industry needed to compete
Mooresville, to the north, began developing industrial parks in the 1980s where manufacturers could quickly locate, and recently landed its first Fortune 100 corporate campus, Lowe's Cos. Inc. Concord, to the east, has been successful marketing the business park attached to the Concord Regional Airport. Now, north Mecklenburg has to target industries that are creating jobs, said Michael Walden, an economics professor at N.C. State University. "Building up enough synergy and an established base is difficult," Walden said.
The EDC first went to work inventorying land appropriate for industrial or office use and getting it zoned. North Mecklenburg wants a combination of office/campus, flexible warehouse and clean manufacturing to diversify the largely service and retail job base. Bill Russell, president of the Lake Norman Chamber, says landing a few such companies would attract more businesses. They would like to have 3,000 acres in such uses in 25 years.
So north Mecklenburg must develop better roads, said Gary Shoesmith, director of economic studies at Wake Forest University.
"If they have those sites and get their marketing down, it could be a very competitive area for building businesses," he said.
But the question remained: How could all three towns benefit when most of the developable land in north Mecklenburg is controlled by Huntersville?
Leaders believe they found the answer: by sharing costs and tax revenues.
Huntersville has an option to purchase 126 acres known as the Brookwood property on the east side of N.C. 115 south of downtown, currently owned by Carolina Hospital Association.
Under a potential agreement, the towns would share the $4 million cost based on population, Huntersville Town Manager Jerry Cox said. Huntersville would pay 60 percent, Cornelius 25 percent and Davidson 15 percent. When the park starts producing property tax revenues, the towns would share them according to the same formula, Cox said.
A seven-person team of the three mayors, three managers and Heath would manage the park, Heath said.
The towns plan to forgive 50 percent of property taxes for nine years to the first company that locates in the park. County commissioners also voted last week to OK incentives to the company.
Jim Puckett, north Mecklenburg's county commissioner and chair of the county's economic development committee, says the deal is not the best he's seen. In general, he said, he disagrees with giving companies too much. But he supported the tax incentives because he believes in the towns' joint effort.
The towns have a history of failing to work together on issues, he said, which makes it critical that this effort see early success.
"It is vital that north Mecklenburg develop an employment base. To me, that's the most critical challenge." he said. "I think when we marry that with the fact that the three towns have taken an unprecedented step in cooperating with each other to develop a cohesive strategy, we need to reward that effort on their part."