Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — Rep. Michael Wray, a Northampton County Democrat, has been a strong supporter of state funding for an automotive research center to be located on land in close proximity to a tract he owns in Northampton County.
Access to the 610-acre tract under option by Northampton County for the proposed Advanced Vehicle Research Center would be via a road that goes through Wray’s tract. Wray and a partner bought the property in 2001, just prior to Lowe’s Home Improvement Company purchasing a nearby tract for a distribution center.
Wray and his partner granted the North Carolina Department of Transportation a right-of-way to build the access road, now named Lowe’s Boulevard, through their property.
The proposed House budget released this week contains $7.5 million for the vehicle research center, which would to be located off I-95 north of Roanoke Rapids. A feasibility study states that the center would provide automotive testing services at a facility that would include a 2.5-mile closed-loop test track, laboratories, garages, and office space. State taxpayers are to provide the start-up costs, and organizations that need testing services will be recruited to fund the operating costs.
“We are pleased to report that several projects in Northampton County and Roanoke Rapids have cleared the first hurdle in the budget process by being approved by the Natural Resources Subcommittee, and we’re hopeful they will be funded in the final House budget bill,” said a June 10 press release from Wray and Rep. Lucy Allen, also a Franklin County Democrat, both of whom serve on that committee. The vehicle center was one of the projects listed in the press release. Wray also sponsored a separate bill this year that called for $15 million in tax credits and $15 million in cash for the center over the next two years. The House did not take separate action on the bill.
The 105-acre Wray tract is one of seven available industrial sites the North Carolina Department of Commerce lists in Northampton County.
State law requires a member of the General Assembly who has an economic interest in a matter to consider whether his judgment will be substantially influenced by that interest. If a member determines that his economic interest may affect his judgment, “he shall not take any action to further his economic interest, and shall ask that he be excused, by the presiding officer in accordance with the rules of the respective body.” Rep. Wray, in his first term in the General Assembly, could not be reached for comment.
A non-profit organization was set up in March to manage the vehicle center project. The members of the non-profit include representatives from Northampton County, the North Carolina Northeast Economic Development Partnership — a 16-county, state-funded regional economic development organization headquartered in Edenton — and Wake County resident Richard Dell, the man who originated the vehicle center concept.
According to Northampton County Economic Development Commission Director Gary Brown, Dell is a retired IBM employee who has experience with the automotive industry, and who has been an automotive enthusiast throughout his life. “After retirement he has spent considerable time studying how new products have been bought to the market. He has a huge interest in alternative fuel technologies,” Brown told Carolina Journal.
Apparent conflicts of interest have arisen in the past with the Northeast Partnership. The Daily Advance of Elizabeth City, The Washington Daily News, and Carolina Journal have documented situations where the organization’s president Rick Watson has tried to obtain, or has obtained, ownership interest in companies he was recruiting to come to his region.
The Northeast Partnership hired Richard Dell, the man who originated the idea, to do a feasibility study on the vehicle research center. His feasibility study, completed in October 2002, concluded the project was feasible, that “the best location for an automotive proving ground and research center was on I-95 in Northampton County” (in the Northeast Partnership’s region), and that the Northeast Partnership “should be an ongoing partner in the grant and funding process for the center.”
A second expenditure approved for Wray’s legislative district was $750,000 towards an entertainment complex in Roanoke Rapids. The project would involve Randy Parton, brother of country music star Dolly Parton. The release of funds for each project is contingent on the Office of State Budget and Management determining that the project management “has entered into the contracts necessary for the successful completion” of the project. Exactly how that process would work is not clear. Officials with the Budget Office would not answer any questions from CJ.
Both projects still have some hurdles. They will have to remain in the budget approved by the House, then must be included in a final budget approved by the Senate, and then must be in the budget signed by Gov. Mike Easley.
Don Carrington is executive editor of Carolina Journal.