A nonprofit has formed with the intention to rebrand and make improvements to the Leland Industrial Park, but some county officials are questioning if the group should take on such an initiative.
Gene Merritt, a former member of the Leland Economic Development Committee, recently formed Leland Innovation Park Inc., a nonprofit organization that aims to seek grants from public and private entities to fund improvement initiatives in the park.
The outside group's formation, and an overall initiative to improve the park, stemmed from discussions at Leland Economic Development Committee meetings since 2016, said Gary Vidmar, economic and community development director for the town of Leland.
The idea to rebrand and rename the park came with the formation of a task force for the park in 2017, he said.
Vidmar is slated to update the town’s Economic Development Committee on Thursday about a July 26 presentation that unveiled the Leland Innovation Park initiative and the new group. That event was attended by several business owners in the park and county officials.
The Leland Industrial Park, located off U.S. 74 near its intersection with Interstate 140, is more than 600 acres, with more than half undeveloped, Vidmar said.
Brunswick County Commissioners Chairman Frank Williams, who attended the July 26 meeting, said that he believes oversight of the park should belong to Brunswick Business & Industry Development (Brunswick BID). He also noted that he had not heard about the initiative until the meeting.
“My primary issue was with the way the communication and stakeholder engagement was handled,” Williams said.
“The concept of the vision for the rebranding, I have no issue with that. I think it's a good idea. My concern is that there is already a vehicle in place. Our nonprofit, Brunswick Business Industry & Development, is ... capable of taking those kinds of contributions and working on that kind of thing if this is what they wanted to maintain that park ... ,” Williams said. “To me, you don't need to have two organizations where one would do the job. And if there is a need for two organizations that needs to be clearly defined to make sure that they each have their own clear job descriptions so they are not to create brand confusion."
Merritt said that he doesn’t feel the new group conflicts with the mission of Brunswick BID.
The initiative is centered around the rebranding effort and the renaming the park to Leland Innovation Park to define the types of business operations currently within the park and to take away from the mindset of the type of smokestack operations that go along with term industrial, said Vidmar, who presented at the July meeting.
Vidmar said that though the park is not located within town limits, Economic Development Committee members have been looking at the park as an economic development driver for the town, as it relates to the workforce impact on its real estate and supporting town businesses.
The nonprofit group will not be a membership organization, said Merritt, president and spokesman of the organization. Its goals include improving park signage, landscaping and infrastructure, as well as connecting property owners and tenants at the park.
In addition, the effort aims to collaborate with officials in Brunswick and New Hanover counties, the city of Wilmington, area colleges and the University of North Carolina Wilmington, he said.
For the Leland Innovation Park Inc. nonprofit group, Merritt wants to form an 11-member board of directors for the nonprofit organization, including town and county officials, economic development organizations in the area and property and business owners in the park.
A new website is in the works for the Leland Innovation Park initiative and could be operational later this week, Vidmar said.
“I don't think it's a secret that there's poor signage; the roads are in poor condition [and] the drainage facilities are deplorable. These are all the improvements that we believe with this initiative can be made,” Vidmar said at the July meeting.
Vidmar also noted the lack of communication between companies within the park.
“We've actually seen instances where companies are buying product from another state, another part of the country, when their neighbor is actually making those same products. We've seen this time and time again,” he said.
The initiative aims to address these challenges and those improvements might help attract advanced and precision manufacturing and distribution companies, he said. Both Vidmar and Merritt noted that the group does not seek to be a job recruiter for the park.
“It really doesn't have a brand," Vidmar said at the presentation. "There's no overall development company or product property management company that's overseeing an operation to keep the park maintained, keep it improved. Each of your companies does that with your own property, but there's no overall manager overseeing everything that's going on in there."
Bill Schoettelkotte, the registered agent listed on N.C. Secretary of State’s website for WCM Enterprises, said he is discussing with attorneys to see what the company controls and what it does not. He said the company owns more than 300 acres of land in the park. Individual business owners also own their own properties in the park.
“We certainly maintain our land. We cut our grass along the right of ways, where we own property but there is no one entity, so to speak that’s really overseeing everything," he said. "It appears that we may still control the covenants and restrictions, and that is certainly what we are looking into. And if we do, where do we go from there?
“I support what they [Leland Innovation Park Inc.] are trying to do. I just need to look at all the legalities and make sure that we’re doing what we are supposed to do and we’re not overstepping our bound,” Schoettelkotte said.
The original covenants established with the developer back in the early '90s has raised questions over who can manage the park.
“As far as the covenants are concerned and some of the issues surrounding the Leland Industrial Park, some of that information did not come to my attention until the week of that [July] meeting,” Bill Early, executive director of Brunswick BID, said Tuesday. “It is something that Brunswick BID needs to take a look at and determine what its role is in the maintenance of the Leland Industrial Park.
"I think what we need to look at is that the needs of the businesses operating in that park are met and that we are looking for opportunities to further development of that park," Early added. "And existing industry visits, that is something we do and have done on a consistent, regular basis and it goes beyond that … so these companies have not just been ignored."
In reviewing the covenants, Early said that a former economic group is listed in the covenants and "that entity no longer exists, but it also says that it would go to its assignee or successors," he said.
In a document from the Brunswick County Register of Deeds titled “Leland Industrial Park Protective Covenants and Building Standards,” the document states that the developer “reserves, for itself, its successors or assigns, the right and power to approve or disapprove any proposed use of any Site or Subsite, or any proposed site modification, erection of improvements (including signs), or external modifications of improvements (including signs).”
The developer, in this case, is cited as Brunswick County Economic Development Corp. The document is dated back to 1992.
Brunswick County Economic Development Corp. and Brunswick County Economic Development Commission were both replaced by a county department. The county later supported the transition of economic development efforts from the county department to Brunswick BID.
Another deed document, titled “Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, Restrictions, Reservations and Easements” from 1987, lists WCM Enterprises as the developer.
That document states that, “Any time prior to January 1, 2025, the owners (excluding mortgagees and the holders of other security instruments who are not in possession, lessees, and tenants) of a seventy-five percent (75%) majority of the acreage in the Park (excluding highways) may vote of the said seventy-five (75) percent majority alter or amend any or all of said conditions, restrictions and covenants by written declaration signed and acknowledged by them and recorded among the land records of Brunswick County.”
Merritt believes WCM Enterprises, the developer named, has the authority to amend the restrictive covenants and that can take place through the 2025 date listed in the deed documents. But the nonprofit group is "not trying to take over" the covenants or duties of the covenants.
“The restrictive covenants and deeds, even if they do not change, do not prevent us from doing what we want to do,” Merritt said.
Through questions remain, Merritt said that the Leland Innovation Park initiative is "moving forward."
He said he hopes the county and Brunswick BID will join forces with the nonprofit on the initiative.
“We are in our legal rights to do it," he said about the group. "We have not done anything illegal or inappropriate. We are basically representing the interest of the property owners and businesses owner to make it better, create a business community, something that hasn’t been done in the past."