News: CJ Exclusives

Auto Research Center in Jeopardy

Boosters trying to get project back on track after it's left out of budget

Boosters of an automotive research center planned for Northampton County, who were hoping for $30 million in taxpayer funding over the next two years, are trying to get their pet project back on track after it was left out of the budget recently approved by the state Senate.

Named the Advanced Vehicle Research Center, the project would be located off I-95 north of Roanoke Rapids and would provide automotive testing services at a facility that would include a 2.5-mile closed loop test track, laboratories, garages, and office space. Northampton County has an option on 610-acre site for the facility. State taxpayers are to provide the start-up costs, and organizations that need testing services will be recruited to fund the operating costs.

Northampton County Economic Development Commission Director Gary Brown was at the General Assembly last week trying to get the project revived. “I think it was left out of the Senate budget because revenue was short this year. The support we have in the house is strong, and we are hopeful the house will find a funding source for the project,” he told Carolina Journal.

He was more confident earlier this year. “Senator Marc Basnight, House Speaker Jim Black and other leaders of the North Carolina General Assembly have endorsed the project,” he wrote in a March letter to N. C. Department of Commerce officials. “At the federal level, Senator Elizabeth Dole, Senator Richard Burr and Congressman G. K. Butterfield have committed their support and will soon submit funding requests in the energy appropriations bill totaling $2.4 million.”

House and Senate bills were introduced in March that would provide tax credits up to $7.5 million per year for investing in the project, but also called for direct appropriations to Northampton County of $7.5 million each year for the next two fiscal year. Even though no votes were taken on either bill, supporters expected the provisions to show up in other bills.

A non-profit organized to manage the project was created in March and included representatives from Northampton County, the North Carolina Northeast Economic Development Partnership — a state-funded regional economic development organization — and Wake County resident Richard Dell. Dell developed the concept for the research center and the center’s office is currently in Dell’s home.

Brown described Dell as a lifetime automotive enthusiast who is retired from IBM and who has experience with the automotive industry. “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 CJ.

Katie Norman, Sen. Dole’s spokeswoman, told CJ the group had been in contact with the senator’s office, but she would not confirm Dole’s support for the project. Drew Elliot, a spokesman for Sen. Burr, also acknowledged contact with Dell but would not confirm Burr’s pursuit of money in the appropriations process for the project.

In a March letter to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Natural & Economic Resources, the Northeast Partnership claimed a 2002 feasibility study conducted by the Partnership had concluded “the best location for an automotive proving ground and research center was on I-95 in Northampton County.”

A bill to provide tax incentives for investors in the project passed the state House last year, but the Senate did not take up the measure. Twelve Republicans cast the only votes against the bill. The General Assembly did appropriate $200,000 to the Northeast Partnership to spend on the project. Of that amount, $100,000 is being paid to Richard Dell.

Rep. Mitchell Setzer, a Catawba County Republican who voted against the tax credit bill last year, told CJ, “The project sounds like another Global TransPark. I have not seen it surface in the House this year, but that doesn’t mean it won’t creep into the final budget bill.”

Don Carrington is executive editor of Carolina Journal.