A quarter-century after its launch, the Global TransPark continues searching for a strategic plan that works.
The General Assembly in June ordered the North Carolina Global TransPark Authority to develop another strategic plan for its underperforming industrial park and deliver the plan to a transportation oversight committee by January 15. The GTP — a 2,500-acre, state-owned industrial park in Kinston — officially launched in 1992. It has failed to meet the forecast it would create 47,756 direct jobs and 101,242 total jobs by 2010. The project has consumed between $200 million and $300 million in public funds since its inception.
The job estimates were part of a 1992 study commissioned by the North Carolina Department of Transportation that was used to generate public support for the project. Carolina Journal has followed the GTP from the beginning and published several news stories and commentaries on the project.
GTP Executive Director Allen Thomas told CJ there are currently about 1,000 private sector jobs at the facility and another 400 public sector jobs. A businessman and former N.C. Department of Commerce industry recruiter, Thomas started the job in June, resigning from his part-time job as mayor of Greenville. He is enthusiastic about the challenges ahead of him. “My mission is to promote this asset working with the other resources of this region,” he said.
State officials envisioned the project as an air cargo airport surrounded by just-in-time manufacturing facilities, but the park has failed to attract any just-in-time manufacturers.
In March, GTP Interim Executive Director Richard Barkes made a presentation to the General Assembly’s Joint Appropriations Committee on Transportation that described the GTP strategic plan as follows: “To build a diverse tenant base at the GTP that is capable of growing its business, creating jobs and contributing to the State and global economy by operating the GTP (High Tech Aviation Industry focused Industrial Park) and the Kinston regional Jetport.”
But the General Assembly apparently wanted a new strategic plan. Through the state budget passed in June, it ordered the GTP to develop another strategic plan and hire a marketing firm. This follows GTP strategic plans that were released in 2002 and 2010. The GTP currently receives $700,000 a year in direct taxpayer support from the state budget. The General Assembly included an additional $400,000 a year for the next two years for the planning and marketing efforts.
UNC-Chapel Hill business professor John Kasarda developed the concept for the facility in 1990 and convinced Gov. Jim Martin that it would be a wonderful opportunity for the state to pursue. In 1991, the General Assembly embraced the project and established an independent North Carolina Air Cargo Airport Authority under NCDOT.
In a 1994 CJ piece by John Hood and Michael Lowrey the authors said, “Other than those affiliated with the project, we haven’t been able to locate any experts or publications calling the TransPark a good bet for the state.” They also noted that CJ contributing editor Mike Walden, an N.C. State University economist, “ridiculed studies purporting to forecast huge gains in jobs and growth from the project, and says that the state has no business risking public money on such a risky venture.”
In 2002, CJ reported NCDOT officials significantly reduced a detailed version of a report to the General Assembly to exclude information that the Global TransPark “is perceived as a major financial liability” and that abandonment of the “less-than satisfactory” project could spell disaster for state leaders. “The amount of praise for finally stopping the financial hemorrhage the TransPark is perceived to have become will be greatly outweighed by the condemnation of the long-time opponents and naysayers in the press,” the long version of the report says.
In 2008, the GTP finally landed a major tenant when Spirit AeroSystems, a spinoff of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, announced it selected the GTP to produce composite fuselage structures for a new aircraft model, the Airbus A350 that would be assembled in France. CJ stories noted that the project came at a high cost because state officials committed subsidies in excess of $200 million to attract the company.
Then-NCDOT Secretary Gene Conti, was excited about the Spirit project. “The coming of Spirit to GTP is likely among the most important events in the business history of our state,” he wrote in a commentary for The Charlotte Observer. “Now, the GTP can leave the long struggle for respectability behind,” he said.
CJ reported in 2010 that the GTP had no plan to repay $25 million in unpaid principal plus accrued interest that it borrowed from a fund controlled by the state treasurer. Realizing the repayment was not practical, in 2013 the General Assembly appropriated funds to retire the debt.
In 2015, CJ reported that a six-mile-long railroad spur line connecting the Spirit plant to the main rail line — completed in 2012 at a cost to taxpayers of $24 million — was not being used by Spirit. State officials said the rail line was necessary to close the deal with Spirit, but Spirit found it more cost-effective to ship components by truck. It is now moving components by truck and by air on the massive Russian-built Antonov AN225. Executive Director Thomas told CJ that Spirit is using the rail spur on a limited trial basis.
Kasarda contacted CJ after the GTP story first appeared online and offered the following comments:
He said Spirit is using the just-in-time system to deliver components.
“JIT refers to the system of delivery, not how long it takes to produce an individual component. They are utilizing the very expensive Antonovs to fly the large components to France to arrive just in time for their assembly needs,” he said.
In regard to choosing Kinston for the GTP, Kasarda said he wasn’t part of the site selection process.
“Kinston was deemed the best location at the time for the location of the GTP given economic, space, and political factors, the latter primarily desiring to do something to catalyze economic development in what was a seriously declining part of our state. The ability to expand the Kinston Jetport along with the amount of developable land around it were also considered plusses for the site.”
Curiously, those who selected the site seemed to discount the importance of access to a major highway. “The GTP needs to have a quick and efficient highway linking it to I-40 or I-95,” he said.
“I certainly understand the disappointment of many at the limited GTP progress given initial pronouncements and expectations. However, the GTP may be one of the few tangible assets that eastern North Carolina has to move the region upward. I’m pleased to see that the state legislature has requested a fresh look at the GTP strategy,” he said.