LUMBERTON — State House Speaker Thom Tillis says that state certified industrial sites should not be overlooked for economic development projects because the property owners who may financially benefit are donors to political parties or individual candidates.
Tillis also said that the state’s recent loss of Germany-headquartered Continental Tire to South Carolina was not the result of property ownership by a state senator and Democratic campaign donors, but instead the result of state legislators not being able to reach a “comfortable” agreement on the tire company’s demand for a $45 million cash incentive to be paid up front. The state had offered $45 million over 15 years.
The speaker’s words should be comforting to Robeson County, where the owners of all the county’s five privately owned state-certified industrial sites are contributors to either the Democrat or Republican parties. COMtech Park is publicly owned, by Robeson County.
Greg Cummings, Robeson County’s director for industrial development, said Robeson County has more certified industrial sites than any other county in the state, encompassing 2,305 acres.
“These sites are all shovel ready, meaning a company can start building in 90 days,’’ Cummings said. “The sites also contain water, sewer, natural gas and rail.”
Tillis, at Robeson Community College on Thursday for a town hall meeting, said that the loss of Continental Tire — known as Project Soccer — and its 1,300 to 1,600 jobs is for him a personal “source of frustration.”
“I’m disappointed. It’s a terrible loss,” Tillis said. “But the property ownership was not the issue. There were other factors and some honest disagreements between the governor and Senate.”
North Carolina had been trying to lure the tire manufacturer to the Mid-Atlantic Logistics Center near the borders of Brunswick and Columbus counties since early this year. Owners of the property include Sen. Michael Walters, a Democrat who represents Robeson and Hoke counties, and Democratic Party donors, including William E. Musselwhite, a Lumberton attorney, and David T. Stephenson III, a tobacco farmer from Lumberton and member of the board overseeing the state Golden LEAF Foundation
Project Soccer reportedly ran into a roadblock in the Senate, where Phil Berger, the chamber’s leader, raised concerns about Democratic contributors to Gov. Beverly Perdue’s campaign owning the property. Senators also had concerns about the company’s demand for a $45 million cash incentive.
After Continental Tire’s announcement that the company would build its manufacturing plant in Sumter, S.C., Berger accused the governor of “pay-to-play politics,” action that he said resulted in costing the state the new jobs.
Tillis said that until the last minute before Continental’s announcement, he tried to muster support in the House for an incentives package — including the upfront $45 million — that would also offer the company tax breaks, infrastructure improvements, and a forgivable loan.
Getting Democrat or Republican support of incentives is difficult, Tillis said.
“Incentives are hated by the right in my party and by the left of the Democratic Party,” Tillis said. “Personally, I didn’t really care who owned this property. I was concerned about the financial arrangement and that the state would be protected from losing any money.”
Tillis said that there were other industrial sites in North Carolina, including Robeson County, that could have qualified as a potential location for Continental Tire.
“But there was no backup plan,” Tillis said. “We should have had a Plan B. If one site was turned down we could have immediately gone to another.”
Tillis said that in the future the governor and Department of Commerce, primary players in the state’s industrial recruitment efforts, should “engage the legislature” early on in the recruitment of individual companies.
“We all need to work together,” he said.
Cummings said Friday that two certified industrial sites in Robeson County along Interstate 95 would have met the site requirements of Continental Tire. He added that who owns the property should not enter into the discussion.
“It doesn’t matter who owns the site,” he said. “The bottom line is that it’s shovel ready to go. That’s what the national consulting groups that seek sites for industries are looking for.”
Cummings also said that in his opinion the infighting among state officials over the incentives that should have been offered Continental Tire could hurt the state’s future industrial recruitment efforts.
“It will cause problems,” he said. ‘The state has to be in accord. If not, it puts up a red flag.”
— Staff writer Bob Shiles can be reached at (910) 272-6117 or firstname.lastname@example.org