Incentives spur economic development

Published 5:46 pm Friday, November 22, 2019

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CONWAY – Over the course of his 31-year career in county government, Wayne Jenkins was a “numbers guy.”

From his humble beginnings in 1982 in a dual position as Northampton County’s Emergency Management Coordinator and Water Supervisor – from where he played an integral role in the construction of the beginning phases of the county’s public water system; promoted in 1992 to the position of Public Works Director; and finally as County Manager from 2001-2013, Jenkins closely scrutinized each and every project.

To that end, Jenkins – now a private citizen still living in Northampton – expressed his concerns over several comments made by current county commissioners in regards to prior investments of taxpayer money to attract industry to the county, particularly the Lowes Home Improvement Distribution Warehouse and Enviva Pellets. Jenkins additionally wanted to clear the air over allegations of his personal involvement in the North Carolina Center for Automotive Research (NCCAR) that opened in 2009 near Garysburg.

At Monday’s (Nov. 18) scheduled meeting of the Northampton Commissioners at the Conway Town Hall, Jenkins spoke during public comments. Due to time limits, he was unable to share the entirety of his concerns, but he did distribute copies to each of the five commissioners as well as to the media.

Referencing recent meetings of the commissioners, Jenkins noted “derisive comments” made in regards to a trio of previous economic development projects: Lowes, Enviva and NCCAR.

“It was stated that each year the county pays out the tax dollars of others on each of those projects. That is not true,” Jenkins said. “The question was asked as to why there was effectively no opposition to any of the projects. To answer the question simply – the strong, broad public support for all three projects greatly outweighed any limited opposition associated with any of the projects.”

He stressed that all three of these projects, prior to choosing Northampton, were being considered for other possible locations, even outside of North Carolina.

“The incentives offered by the county were absolutely necessary to successfully compete and the people of Northampton County understood that,” he said. “In particular, regarding the Lowes and Enviva projects, the board of commissioners and the people of Northampton County understood that we were in a tough competition for tens of millions in capital investment and hundreds of higher wage long-term jobs and that it was, and remains, far better to act to lock in 25% or 50% of something exceptionally valuable rather than walk away from the competition and guarantee 100% of nothing.”

Jenkins added that all three projects met the “substantial public·interest” and “strict procedural requirements” tests of the North Carolina Constitution, the rulings of North Carolina courts, and the North Carolina General Statutes.

“The terms of agreement were broadly disclosed and known to the public, witnessing that there were no sweetheart deals with friends or political cronies,” Jenkins noted of the three projects.

Jenkins said Northampton contributed 228 acres and 120 acres of county-owned land respectively to the Lowes and Enviva projects. Once both were operational, the county’s land costs on both were recouped by year three due to the property tax revenue generated by the projects.

“Enviva invested more than $92 million and created 92 jobs,” Jenkins noted. “Since start-up, the company has paid approximately $850,000 in property taxes a year. For the past five years they were eligible for a grant equal to about half of the property taxes paid (and before the first year of that grant eligibility the county recovered all county project costs, including the land cost). Northampton County retains the other half, about $425,000. At a minimum, the net to Northampton County has been some $425,000 every year. After the five-year grant term, the county retains the full $850,000.”

Separate from property taxes, Envjva pays more than $40,000 in fire service district taxes every year, Jenkins added.

“Lowes created more than 850 full-time jobs and invested roughly $40 million in both real and personal property, generating about $350,000 in tax revenue every year,” Jenkins said. “True, the county agreed to pay the fee for solid waste disposal [at Lowes] for 20 years. Assuming the $240,000 annual cost cited at the Nov. 12 [commissioners] meeting is accurate (and even though the service cost was far less years ago), the county has still realized a net gain of approximately $110,000 per year. Plus 850 jobs.

“In these recent meetings, I’ve heard it said that only 200 of those [Lowes] jobs are held by Northampton County citizens, again criticizing Lowes,” he continued. “Maybe 200 jobs aren’t important to you. But those jobs are very important to the 200 Northampton County citizens who work there. Those jobs put food on the table, gas in the car, provide housing and clothing and Christmas presents.”

Jenkins highlighted a recent comment made by Charles Tyner, current chairman of the commissioners.

“As noted by Commissioner Tyner, Enviva is now undertaking a $30 million expansion project. If all of that is capitalized and taxable, that’s another $274,500 in tax revenue [for the county],” Jenkins stressed.

As for the NCCAR project, Jenkins noted that it leveraged state and federal grant funds, 10-to-1.

“The project was envisioned not as a job creation project, but as a research and development center,” he stated. “The objective was to develop a testing facility that could attract the R&D interests of the domestic and foreign automotive industry to North Carolina. Sites throughout the state were evaluated for the project, and the Northampton County site selected.”

He added there was a job creation component associated with NCCAR in its early stages. Jenkins said Lotus Engineering North America proposed to establish their chassis dynamics group in Northampton County with 62 highly skilled engineering and technical jobs with average wages well above the county and state averages.

“That project was so significant that the State of North Carolina attached a Job Development Investment Grant

(JDIG) to the project – the first JDIG awarded to any project east of Raleigh,” Jenkins recalled. “What our commissioners, our legislators, the General Assembly, the Department of Commerce and everyone else could not anticipate was the Great Recession which hit full force the year construction of NCCAR began.”

However, instead of abandoning the project, Jenkins said, “the NCCAR Board of Directors kept moving forward, keeping county and the state leaders informed and renegotiating agreements, working through very difficult times to develop a truly first class facility which continues to operate in the black, and which is far from empty.”

Jenkins noted that the program development work of other companies at NCCAR has continued with the likes of MultiMatic, Rousch Performance, GM Marketing, Bosch Automotive, Ford Performance, Mclaren, RTR Vehicles, John Deere Ag Group, Vaughn Gittin Jr. Motorsports, Toyo Tires, Duke Motorsports Formula SAE, Tire Rack Street Survival and more.

Additionally, Jenkins pointed out that NCCAR has hosted more than 22,000 participants during weekend driver/rider education and training events.

“Those visitors have generated at least a couple of million dollars in area purchases for gas, food, tires and lodging – a good chunk of it, I imagine, at the county’s one often mentioned motel,” he said. “NCCAR has also paid $459,873 in property taxes, and an additional $171,940 to the Northampton County Ambulance Service.”

It was at this point of Jenkins’s letter where he stressed there was no conflict of interest on his part nor that of Northampton County Economic Development Director Gary Brown when it comes to the NCCAR project.

“At a couple of meetings of the Board of Commissioners, individuals have suggested that Gary Brown and I have a conflict of interest in that we have served on the NCCAR Board of Directors,” Jenkins said. “Those individuals may have personal familiarity with conflicts of interest, but quite apparently do not know the law when it comes to conflicts of interest on the part of others.”

Jenkins stressed that it’s common practice for public officials and public employees to serve on various other boards, commissions, and authorities.

“Many, if not all of you, do so today,” Jenkins told the current county commissioners.

He explained how such conflicts arise.

“First, in law, conflicts of interest arise when there are situations in which a public official or public employee or a close relative might realize a financial gain or benefit in exercising their public responsibilities,” Jenkins emphasized. “Second, often in an attempt to distract attention from themselves, it’s common for someone to suggest that another person has a conflict of interest.”

Jenkins stressed that members of the NCCAR Board of Directors receive no salary, or wages, or any other kind of earnings for serving.

“No per meeting payment, no discounts, no favors. No benefits to any family member, friends or business associates. No ownership. No profit sharing. No use of cars. No influence peddling to land a new job, get a loan, property tax bailout or land deal. No fee for facilitating a meeting or workshop. None. And no conflict of interest,” he said.

Jenkins continued by saying, “I might add that every state grant funding dollar received and expended by NCCAR, every requisition and every expense was audited by the Fiscal Management Division of the North Carolina Department of Administration. Every federal dollar was audited by the US Department of Energy. For all grant awards, NCCAR balanced with every penny accounted for, and not one finding of any impropriety of any kind.”

He also briefly remarked on the county’s existing Revolving Loan Fund [used to attract new businesses or retain/expand existing ones]. Jenkins said the ones he recalled – Hampton Woods Assisted Living, Fineline Industries, a rail re-location project at Resinall, and Bay Sire Bistro – were all fully repaid on time.

Jenkins inquired of the current balance of the revolving loan fund; what loans have been made since January of 2018; and the payment status of those loans.

“Please provide me a copy of the revolving loan fund guidelines by which the Food Fresh (Jackson grocery) loan was approved; a copy of the related executed loan agreement including the schedule of payments, and an accounting of the payments made to date,” he said.

“Economic development is a demanding and rigorous undertaking, especially for a rural county,” Jenkins maintained. “Done well, the process starts by making informed decisions about economic development that are based on sound planning and analysis by experienced professionals. There are commonly no good and lasting quick fixes and the circumstances of each rural community may require many varied approaches to generate positive, meaningful results.

“Don’t get me wrong, I believe an expanded, well-managed, and secured small business revolving loan fund might prove to be a valuable asset for the county. But I also believe it unnecessary, unprofessional, unethical, untruthful and entirely unfair to the citizens to attempt to prejudicially justify public investments in a revolving loan fund, or any other new venture, by disparaging proven past economic development successes and those responsible for them. I also firmly believe the citizens of Northampton County deserve better,” Jenkins concluded.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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