SALISBURY — A high-tech firm with clients like BMW and Bausch & Lomb plans to construct a $4 million office building in downtown Salisbury, joining the proposed school central office in the 300 block of South Main Street.
Integro, which has tripled its workforce in two years, plans to move from a converted warehouse at 305 N. Lee St. to the corner of South Main and East Bank streets, where the Farmers Market and former GX Fitness now stand.
At the other end of the block, Rowan-Salisbury Schools and the city plan to build an $8 million central office to consolidate the school system's administration, a project Rowan County commissioners recently declined to help fund.
The one-two punch of public and private investment will redevelop the 300 block of South Main Street, focusing on a knowledge-based economy, Mayor Paul Woodson said.
“Our goal is to try to make this a high-tech cluster for our city,” Woodson said Monday morning at a press conference in City Hall.
The city owns the entire east side of the block and plans to demolish the Farmers Market parking lot, GX building and a vacant office building to make way for Integro's 41,800-square-foot, two-story facility dubbed the Salisbury Business Center. The Farmers Market is expected to move to Depot Street.
Integro would occupy most of the building and lease about 10,800 square feet to technology start-up companies, Vice President Shawn Campion said.
Before the project can move forward, City Council must approve incentives for Integro's expansion and agree to borrow $8 million on behalf of the school system. The city is also cleaning up massive soil contamination at the central office site, a former service station. The state is picking up the $500,000 tab.
'In for sure' Campion said Integro will build the new facility regardless of what happens to the school central office. He clarified an earlier statement that his company's decision hinged on the city bringing the school central office to the other end of the block.
“We are in for sure,” Campion said Monday afternoon. “We are committed to the project, but we want the school office there.”
If both projects move forward, Integro will partner with Rowan-Salisbury Schools to support the STEM initiative, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math. The company wants to encourage students to pursue careers in technology.
“I need engineers,” Campion said. “We want to encourage kids early on. I would like to see kids get excited about this.”
Dr. Richard Miller, chairman of the Board of Education, said he looks forward to partnering with Integro and called the company an asset.
Integro has worked with the Economic Development Commission for a year to find a new home, considering every vacant building in Rowan County, said Robert Van Geons, executive director for RowanWorks EDC.
“But their desire has always been to stay in downtown Salisbury, and without this potential project or this site, the odds are we would have lost the company to another community,” Van Geons said.
Campion said if the city can demolish the old buildings in March, he would like to start construction in April.
Although economic incentives were not mentioned at Monday's press conference, Integro will seek an incentive grant from the city totaling 85 percent of its property taxes for seven years.
City Council will hold a public hearing March 5 on the performance-based incentive.
Integro would have to meet job and investment requirements to receive the grant, Van Geons said.
The company has 18 jobs at its Salisbury headquarters, up from six in January 2011, and expects to employ 24 people by this summer, Campion said. By the end of 2014, Integro should have between 28 and 30 employees in Salisbury, he said.
Van Geons said he will present to City Council an economic impact analysis, including how much the company must invest and how many jobs it must create to qualify for incentives. Salary and benefits packages at Integro average $72,5000.
Integro has four additional locations in the U.S. with a fifth in the works.
Karen Alexander, the newest City Council member, was appointed just in time to enter the school central office and Integro discussions. She said she is proud of the city for championing the cause of the central office.
“Someone needs to step forward with visionary leadership,” Alexander said, comparing the central office to similar consolidation projects for county government in the old post office and the Department of Social Services.
All, she said, resulted in staff and operational efficiency.
The city's investment in the central office project is paying off with Integro's private investment, council members said.
“This opportunity has come because we have been vocal about our support and our desire to bring the central school office to this same area,” Councilman Brian Miller said. “I believe that when we do those things that attract attention and we believe in ourselves, it makes other people want to invest.”
Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell noted that Integro wants close proximity to the school central office to help groom future engineers.
William “Pete” Kennedy, the longest serving council member, called downtown Salisbury's redevelopment “a 20-year overnight success.”
Council is waiting to hear proposals from city staff about borrowing $8 million for the central office. The school system would pay back the money using state sales tax earmarked for capital outlay.
Parking for Integro and central office employees would be located behind the Integro building.
Taking the steps
Campion said soil contamination at the central office site has no influence on Integro project. Other than asbestos inside the old buildings to be demolished, City Manager Doug Paris said he does not expect to encounter contamination on the Integro site, which never held a gas station.
He acknowledged that several steps must occur before construction can begin on either project, including going through the demolition permit process, holding an incentives public hearing and meeting with school officials to iron out financing details on the $8 million loan.
“You have to walk before you can run,” Paris said, adding he is confident both projects will happen.
Paris said he has no time frame in mind but hopes to move as quickly as possible.
“When I am done redeveloping that block, I'm going to target another,” he said.
Monday's announcement was another step toward developing the “creative economy” that many city leaders have pursued since the demise of the textile industry, he said.
“We are starting to see fruits of that labor,” Paris said. “Our future is not necessarily recruiting textile mills or other big companies, it's building our own companies and growing those companies.”
Integro is a success story for downtown Salisbury and the city, said Mark Lewis, president of Downtown Salisbury Inc.
One project can spur additional development, said Lewis, an early advocate for the creative economy.
“In order for Rowan County to grow, Salisbury must grow,” he said. “And in order for Salisbury to grow, the downtown must remain vibrant.”
Projects like Integro that bring investment and high-paying jobs build on the more than $120 million that already has been invested in the downtown and open up possibilities for continued growth, Lewis said.
Calling Monday a “happy, great day” for both Salisbury and Rowan County, Woodson said the high-tech cluster will represent $12 million to $14 million in investment with between 160 and 180 employees.
“The council and city for years and years have been trying to redevelop that downtown, that south end,” he said.
In 2008, Salisbury launched Fibrant, a $33 million high-speed broadband utility, as part of an effort to transform the city and attract high-tech businesses. Integro was one of Fibrant's first commercial customers.
The redevelopment of the 300 block of South Main Street will boost the city's image and “put our county on the map,” Woodson said.
“We want to make Salisbury and Rowan County a high-tech mecca,” he said.