Needed: more buildings ready for industry Economic developers say Rowan missing properties other areas have available

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 14, 2013

SALISBURY — Rowan County’s biggest obstacle to attracting new industry isn’t the county’s polluted air, a team of business recruiters told local leaders Wednesday.
The main stumbling block is the county’s lack of available industrial buildings, according to the economic development services team for the Charlotte Regional Partnership.
David Swenson, David Bell and Michael Flynn met with more than 20 local elected officials, business leaders and RowanWorks Economic Development board members to talk about the Charlotte Regional Partnership’s beefed up recruiting efforts and how Rowan can attract more industry.
Two years ago, Rowan County commissioners pulled funding from the partnership after CEO Ronnie Bryant received a 25 percent bonus of $64,630.
RowanWorks board members supported the decision, expressing concern not only about the bonus but also about what they perceived as a lack of services delivered for Rowan’s $36,326 annual contribution.
The partnership markets the 16-county Charlotte region worldwide to prospective industries.
In response to Rowan’s boycott and concerns of other members, the partnership made a strong commitment to expand marketing and recruiting initiatives with new staff and new programs, said Robert Van Geons, executive director for RowanWorks.
As of July, Rowan rejoined the partnership. The county was not required to pay outstanding dues, Van Geons said.
Van Geons said he invited the partnership’s economic development team to Rowan so local leaders could meet them and “hear what they are doing with our investment.”
Nearly 80 percent of the companies that contact the partnership to locate in the Charlotte area want an available building, Swenson said.
“I characterize communities by their available properties,” Bell said. “Having that availability is something I see as key.”
The entire region has a lack of available class A property because the private sector stopped construction during the recession, he said. The Charlotte area is competing against markets like Phoenix and Dallas with a glut of space, Flynn said.
The shortage of buildings is especially noticeable in Rowan, where one million square feet of industrial space was sold or leased in the past 12 months, Van Geons said.
“We went from having ample product to relatively none in the course of a calendar year,” he said.
Of more than a dozen projects lured by the Charlotte Regional Partnership since 2011 — none to Rowan — only four companies constructed their own facility. The rest bought buildings.
To meet the need, some communities are constructing large, vacant industrial buildings to lure companies. Statesville recently put up a spec building and landed a manufacturer.
In the new economy, the public sector has to do more to create opportunity, Swenson said.
“You can’t show something you don’t have,” he said.
Although Swenson said a spec building would cost about $2 million, Van Geons later said Rowan could build one for far less.
The vacant buildings are constructed as standard shells with flexible interiors to suit a range of industries.
Rowan has plenty of vacant space to locate a spec building, including at Summit Corporate Center, Swenson said.
County Commissioner Chad Mitchell said he doubted a publicly funded spec building could gain support here.
“At the moment, the county does not have a high tolerance for risk,” Mitchell said.
The last time Rowan constructed a spec building in Summit, it took years to sell, he said. By the time a spec building goes up, it’s obsolete because the market has changed, he said.
“It’s a danger for government to go into,” Mitchell said. “I’m not so sure government is ready to go full-bore into this. … If we were going to make something like that work, it would certainly have to have a significant private partnership.”
Mitchell said he found Wednesday’s discussion of tax and incentive reform more helpful. He said he plans to look at options for incentives including using tax credits instead of cash grants to lure new industry.
He said he also wants better incentives for existing small businesses that want to expand in Rowan County.
While the Charlotte team named a lack of buildings as Rowan’s highest hurdle, they pointed to Rowan-Cabarrus Community College as one of the county’s greatest assets.
RCCC exceeded other community and technical colleges in the region for offering training programs in the top industrial sectors.
The partnership also praised community leadership in Rowan and skilled local economic developers.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.