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Fields Of Dreams: Brunswick Bets On Megasites To Help Diversify Economy

By Scott Nunn, posted Mar 19, 2021
Bill Early and Gary Lanier are hoping a spec building at the International Logistics Park in Brunswick and Columbus will attract an employer. (Photo by Michael Cline Spencer)
While the “if we build it they will come” approach to attracting industry comes with no guarantees, the chances of success are high right now, according to a Wilmington-based site-selection veteran.
“If you [do] not have any buildings and sites, then you don’t have anything to sell,” said Robin Spinks, a partner with Greenfield, a business-recruitment and site-selection consulting firm.
And it’s not just buildings that attract industries – it’s buildings in the right location and with adequate infrastructure, locations where businesses can get their operations up and running in a relatively short time.
That’s what Brunswick County hopes to offer at two 1,000-acre-plus “certified megasites” off U.S. 74/76 along the Columbus County line. Being “certified” means the state has guaranteed a site meets more than 30 prerequisites, including the proper zoning designation, a Phase I environmental audit, availability of public utilities, an industrial-level power supply and engineered site-development plans.
Both Brunswick and Columbus counties are promoting the International Logistics Park, which spans the county line. The other megasite – the Mid-Atlantic Industrial Rail Park – sits entirely in Brunswick County. Columbus is considered a Tier 1 – economically distressed – county by the state, making it eligible for greater levels of assistance. (Brunswick currently is a Tier 2 on the three-tier scale, with Tier 3 the least-distressed.)
While fast-growing coastal Brunswick has become best known as a retirement and tourism destination, thousands of acres of rural land make the county ripe for industrial development, said Spinks, whose firm has done consulting work for Brunswick Business & Industry Development (BID), the agency charged with recruiting industry to the county.
“They are trying to diversify their economy and use their assets,” Spinks said. “And from a physical standpoint, the county is large enough. Brunswick is basically three different places; it’s Leland, Belville and Navassa, basically a suburb of Wilmington; it’s Southport and the beaches; and then it is the rural western part of the county. So there’s plenty of room for everybody.”
Although the term “industrial” is often used when talking about such large sites, both Spinks and Bill Early, BID’s executive director, said the term shouldn’t necessarily be equated with traditional heavy industry. In fact, according to Site Selection magazine, the fastest-growing industry sectors last year were logistics (19.3%) and life sciences (12%).
Although BID is keeping its options open to potential businesses, it’s not a coincidence that one of the two sites is named the International Logistics Park. The hot sub-sector provides services at all levels of the planning and execution of moving goods, including the fast-growing e-commerce industry.
One of Brunswick County’s chief assets is its location near the Port of Wilmington, the 25th-largest seaport in the nation and also one of the fastest- growing, thanks in large part to its cold-storage warehousing facilities and the area’s growing industrial-real estate market, according to a report from the American Council of Engineering Companies.
While the port’s cold-storage facilities may bring to mind goods such as produce and meats, there is an increasing demand from pharmaceutical and other life-sciences companies for cold storage. Spinks believes that puts the Brunswick County megasites in a great position.
“The food industry and the biopharma industry both need that cold storage, so anything that we can do to meet that need is vital,” Spinks said.
Brunswick’s access to the Port of Wilmington along with North Carolina’s coastal location on the coastal geography also put the two megasites in a good position to draw companies that support a fairly new industry – offshore windpower. There are active projects underway off the coast near the North Carolina-Virginia line, one off the Outer Banks town of Kitty Hawk.
“The state of North Carolina has really gone after – in a very proactive way – that offshore wind supply chain,” Spinks said. “And that supply chain is largely equipment, but also work-boat related.”
It’s basically a matchmaking process, Spinks said – making sure that Brunswick County has the assets that the types of industries it wants to attract are looking for.
“We have got to have sites and buildings ready to go,” she said, “otherwise they’re going to end up in Charleston or Norfolk or Savannah or somewhere else.”
It’s a sensitive subject, but Early and Spinks (both longtime players in the economic development and recruitment game) acknowledge the necessity to land industries that won’t create widespread outcry from the public or area leaders.
With assets such as the port, rail, two major power plants and natural gas service, there are some so-called heavy industries that “would love it here,” Spinks said, but adding that some people don’t want certain types of business in the area.
Similar sentiments have played out across the area over the years. In 2007, Hugo Neu dropped an attempt to locate an industrial landfill and recycling facility in Navassa; in 2016, Titan America ended an eight-year bid to build a cement plant in Castle Hayne after the project met a fierce backlash over environmental concerns, a project it had been pursuing since 2008; and in the early 1990s, Pender County withdrew an offer it had made to host a hazardous-waste incinerator planned by the company ThermalKEM.
But turning away any large industrial business is a trade-off, Spinks pointed out. For example, they generally pay their employees higher wages and provide better benefits than the service-industry and tourism-related businesses that have flooded coastal Brunswick County in recent years. They also are major contributors to the tax base. Duke Energy’s Brunswick nuclear plant is by far the county’s largest payer of property taxes.
For many years the Dupont (later DAK Americas) plant played a similar role as the nuclear plant, pumping millions of dollars into the Brunswick County economy. At the same time, however, it was no secret that the plant was pumping pollution into the air – an issue that would later doom the Titan and ThermalKEM projects.
“You need to have the discussion about how much you as an individual are willing to pay, to support the infrastructure versus how much help you would like from somebody else,” Spinks said.
(That issue could come into play for any industry eyeing the now-vacant DAK site or the cleaned-up Superfund site in Navassa, where a wood-treatment plant was operated between 1936 and 1974.)
Early is mindful of how important the growth in the coastal portion of Brunswick has been, essentially putting the county on the map as a great place to live – notably, a great place to retire.
“We do represent all of Brunswick County, so obviously we’re not going to try to go and bring heavy industry or something like that into the coastal communities and have any type of negative impact on travel and tourism,” Early said. “But we’re also very aware of the need for this type of development all the way down the 17 corridor ... to South Carolina.”
Early believes the U.S. 17 corridor is an ideal location for light manufacturing and other businesses with a minimal environmental footprint. Spinks said that’s where Brunswick’s coastal setting – not necessarily a big draw for a larger corporation – can attract a smaller industrial business.
“There’s a whole different marketplace for individuals who may own small manufacturing facilities in other parts of the country but choose to live here because they have a boat and go up and down the East Coast,” she said. “They want to bring their business to where they want to live. That’s not any particular sector of industry; that’s just people.”
BID not only is keenly aware of the county’s draw as a lifestyle destination; it’s something it aggressively promotes as it tries to woo industries to the area.
The slogan, “Get the resources you need and the lifestyle you want, all in one place,” appears prominently on BID’s website.
Wilmington’s Cameron Management, which is teaming with Greensboro- based Windsor Commercial on a 150,000-square-foot spec building at the International Logistics Park, believes Brunswick is on the right track as it seeks to build a diverse economy.
“Brunswick County and Brunswick BID are very pro-business, and they have been extremely helpful in making this a viable project,” said Hill Rogers, broker in charge at Cameron, which will be marketing, leasing and managing the facility known as the International Commerce Center.
“All successful economies are diverse,” Rogers said. “The industrial market here has a long runway of future growth opportunities.”
The importance of the area’s industrial base often gets overlooked, he said.
“Lost in the story of population growth, beaches, tourism, etc., [is] the industrial base, which is the backbone of the region: N.C. Port at Wilmington, ILM, highways, rail, water and sewer, GE, Corning,” Rogers said. “The region has a thriving port, great infrastructure and an exceptional workforce, so the tools are in place for the International Commerce Center to be successful.”

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