The 1,400-acre Greensboro-Randolph Megasite appears to be several years away from being a suitable location for the automotive plant or other large manufacturing facility it was designed to attract, based on conversations with government, business, and community officials and a review of public documents and financial statements.

Moreover, Carolina Journal has learned that Duke Energy has not begun a study determining how to provide power to the site, the North Carolina Railroad Company does not have enough money to buy land needed for the location, no single private or government entity appears to be in charge of the project, and two newly elected members of the Randolph County Board of Commissioners are skeptical of the endeavor, which could jeopardize the county’s backing for the speculative industrial site.

The property, located along U.S. 421 west of Liberty in Randolph County, now is under the control of three entities: Randolph County, NCRR, and the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite Foundation Inc.

The three entities have approved a document titled “Greensboro-Randolph Megasite Project Agreement,” laying out the responsibilities and duties of the organizations. The agreement states that all decisions need to be unanimous — making the political changes on the Randolph County commission a problem for the megasite’s viability.

Since it has promised to provide water and sewer services to the site, the city of Greensboro is in effect a fourth partner, even though the city is not a signatory to the agreement. According to the agreement, the goal is to recruit a “high-yield project” that would employ a minimum of 1,750 workers.

The agreement states that Randolph County has purchased 425 of the 1,400 acres for the location. The Megasite Foundation has purchased 43 acres and plans to purchase another 70 acres. The NCRR announced Jan. 5 it would acquire the remaining 862 acres by purchasing 19 separate parcels.

Even with a signed agreement, the project has significant hurdles to overcome before it can be presented to any large employer.

No money, no land

NCRR is a unique operation because it is a private company with all the stock owned by the state of North Carolina. The governor and legislative leaders appoint the 13 members of the board of directors.

NCRR owns and manages a 317-mile rail corridor connecting Morehead City to Charlotte. Its primary income comes from leasing its tracks to Norfolk Southern Railway.

As CJ reported in March, NCRR’s involvement in the megasite appeared to be outside its core mission and another railroad company, Norfolk Southern, owns the rail line adjacent to the site. NCRR President Scott Saylor told CJ that the board approved participation in the megasite project as part of the company’s broader economic development mission.

On Jan. 5, Saylor wrote Randolph County commission chairman Darrell Frye, Megasite Foundation Chairman Jim Melvin, and Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughn, stating that NCRR “has reached agreements to purchase approximately 875 acres of land located within the 1,450-acre Greensboro-Randolph Megasite.” While the total price was not revealed in the letter, NCRR officials confirmed to CJ and other news sources that NCRR would spend $13 million, even though its annual report said that in 2014 the railroad made about $4 million in net income, and at the end of that year it had less than $5 million cash on hand.

Nearly three months later, NCRR has not closed on any of the 19 parcels it is expected to buy. When asked about the status of land purchases and the source of funds, in a March 21 email NCRR Chairman Franklin Rouse wrote, “We have worked diligently with key partners to move the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite forward and assemble the land needed to attract a large-scale manufacturer to the state, and we remain committed to this effort.

“As we stated in our discussion with you in January, we are in the process of completing our due diligence on the properties within the site, with closings expected within the next few months,” Rouse added. “The purchase of these properties will be funded in part through sales of legacy properties no longer used for railroad purposes.”

Changing political climate

The March 15 Republican primary for two seats on the five-member Randolph County Board of Commissioners made clear that two megasite-friendly incumbents had lost their re-election bids. Randolph County is heavily Republican, and since no Democrats had filed for either seat, in December the two primary winners will join the commission.

Five days after the election, the Greensboro News & Record noted the significance in a story headlined, “In a dramatic shift, new Randolph commissioners create a majority of megasite skeptics.” The two new commissioners will join David Allen, “who has spent his first year on the board as its lone voice of caution” regarding the megasite, according to the N&R.

Kenny Kidd, an Asheboro financial adviser and former chairman of the Randolph County Republican Party, beat commissioner Phil Kemp, winning 60 percent of the vote. Accountant Maxton McDowell won a three-way race, with incumbent commissioner Arnold Lanier placing third.

Kidd and McDowell were outspoken critics of of the process that led the county to invest heavily in the megasite. Kemp and Lanier were strong supporters of the megasite project.

“As a taxpayer, I could not get a straight answer about anything dealing with the megasite,” Kidd said. “Randolph [County] is still the major stakeholder, and we need to be careful moving forward with this. I won with 60 percent of the vote, and I feel that it was a referendum on this issue. My opponent campaigned as a supporter of this project,” he said.

“I told voters if you want someone to rubber-stamp everything that says megasite, I am not your guy. I will ask hard questions before we move forward. My opponent was the rubber stamp for the megasite,” Kidd said.

Duke Energy

A 500 kilovolt Duke Energy transmission line crosses through the center of the megasite, but that line — an essential part of an electrical grid — is not available for the use of the megasite or any other retail customer. The Megasite Foundation’s website has a map showing the location of three future Duke Energy 115 kV power lines entering the property on the south side. Area residents, however, have told CJ that Duke representatives have informed them the power lines would run four miles and come from the north.

Duke Energy spokesman Tim Pettit would not confirm the location of the power lines, saying only, “Duke Energy is working with the local communities of the economic development megasite on a high-level strategy for assessing transmission access to the site, including availability and timeline for completion of such infrastructure.”

Pettit said Duke will proceed with a transmission line siting plan after some entity associated with the megasite pays for the study. He said it could cost several hundred thousand dollars and said those costs could not be passed along to ratepayers.

The process is lengthy and is similar to the siting of new highways. A transmission line corridor is typically at least 100 feet wide. Duke can use eminent domain to acquire transmission line easements from landowners unwilling to provide them.

Randolph County Economic Development Commission President Bonnie Renfro told CJ, “My understanding is that the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite Foundation will pay for the study using private funds.”

No one in charge

The actual leadership of the megasite project remains unclear. The Piedmont Triad Partnership, a regional economic development organization based in Greensboro, initially spearheaded the project. PTP began working in 2010 to identify a megasite location. Randolph County and the city of Greensboro later joined the effort. The Department of Commerce made a $1.7 million grant to Randolph County in 2012 to support the development and acquisition of a megasite. Randolph County turned the money over to PTP.  The groups eventually settled on the current location.

David Powell, chief executive officer of PTP, resigned in January 2015. The megasite was a high priority for PTP.

In February 2015, immediately after Powell’s resignation, former Greensboro Mayor Jim Melvin formed the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite Foundation with the stated purpose of acquiring land for the site — bringing an additional player to the potential management and oversight of the project.

In April 2015, PTP learned that Powell had been involved in “financial irregularities” and asked the Greensboro Police Department to investigate the matter. In January 2016, the Guilford County district attorney’s office charged Powell with two felony counts each of embezzlement and obtaining property by false pretense. He was scheduled to appear in court March 28, but a judge allowed the case to be continued, and a new date has not been set.

Neither Melvin nor anyone representing the Megasite Foundation has returned or responded to repeated emails and phone messages requesting information about the management structure of the megasite project.

The Megasite Foundation’s website directs inquiries to Renfro or Greensboro Partnership President Brent Christensen. The partnership — a private organization handling economic development efforts for Greensboro and Guilford County — has not responded to questions regarding Duke Energy service to the site or the project in general.

Attorney Alan Ferguson, a founder of the Northeast Randolph Property Owners, a group established to oppose the megasite, told CJ he has concluded that no one is in charge. “It’s also an objection our group has publicly raised for over two years. Hundreds or even thousands of surrounding residents are affected, and millions of public dollars invested, and yet there is no one really running the show,” he said.

A competing site named the Chatham-Siler City Advanced Manufacturing Site, located in Chatham County, 10 miles from the Greensboro-Randolph site, has been developed with no public funds. It contains approximately 1,800 acres, and the state of North Carolina certified it in June 2014 through its NC Certified Sites program. The Chatham County site has no known opposition from local residents.