ROCKINGHAM — The Richmond County Board of Commissioners on Monday approved the conveyance of property to an expanding industry — but not without objection.
Economic Developer Martie Butler approached the board to sell a parcel of county-owned property on Airport Road to Direct Pack at a reduced rate of $10.
The practice, which Butler said “has been done multiple times in the past for economic development projects, is allowed under state statute.
Direct Pack last month announced plans to construct a new 200,000 square-foot building to house a polyethylene terephthalate wash line, with the expansion expected to bring 100 new jobs.
Prior to that announcement, the board voted to rezone the property, which was acquired by the county in a 2018 land swap with Place of Grace for the former Rohanen Middle School in East Rockingham.
County Manager Bryan Land said the property has been used for county storage.
With the property being government owned, the county is not collecting any tax revenue, but selling it to Direct Pack would put it back on the tax books.
“A lot of communities may not have incentives or the available funding to lure companies in, so they utilize this general statute,” Butler said. “It makes it easier for communities such as ours to compete for projects.”
Direct Pack is currently landlocked with the Richmond County Airport on one side and wetlands on the other, Butler said.
“It was a great business decision across the board for both parties involved,” Butler added.
When asked by Commissioner Andy Grooms what would happen if the county didn’t convey that property, Butler said the county could sell land in the industrial park.
However, she added that the parcel in question was the closest property for Direct Pack.
Grooms expressed concerns about what other types of industry could come in if Direct Pack were to leave, since it is now zoned for heavy industry.
“I don’t want to see them, 20 years from now, bring in something the community necessarily doesn’t need,” Grooms said.
Grooms asked about the possibility of requiring Direct Pack to come back to the board if the company ever decided to sell and give the county first right of refusal.
Land said that could be done, but it’s not common practice.
County attorney Bill Webb added, “If we put this condition on the deed, what that will mean for Direct Pack is, if they want to to borrow money … to fund this project, then there’s going to be some issues that have to be dealt with because, technically, Richmond County will have a legal interest in that property.
“And as a result, we’re probably going to have to have special meetings to allow financing and those kind of things … it can get pretty sticky for the company.”
Following a prompt from Vice Chairman Justin Dawkins, Webb added that the county would be “a party to the problem” in the event of environmental issues.
Commissioner Jason Gainey, noting Grooms’ concerns, asked if there could be a stipulation that only the same type of industry moves in, in the event Direct Pack sells out.
Webb said that stipulation could “render that property worthless for the new owner,” adding that he would recommend against restrictions.
“I think what we do as a community in this situation is we look at how Direct Pack has handled themselves as a community neighbor over the decades,” Webb continued. “Based on what I’ve seen, I think they’ve been a good corporate neighbor…and they’re expanding instead of contracting.”
Butler said corporate leaders had planned to be at the meeting to answer questions on Tuesday, but the meeting was moved to Monday.
Commissioner Dr. Rick Watkins said that the county’s safeguard against Grooms’ concerns would be the state permitting process.
“If another industry came in … and they were perceived to be environmentally unfriendly, then they would have to go through the permitting process with (the Department of Environmental Quality) … so there are permissions and protections for us built into that process for permitting,” Watkins said.
Chairman Jeff Smart said that he understood the concerns, but thought the deal was a win-win for the county and Direct Pack.
The board passed the measure, with Grooms dissenting.
Butler said the project is estimated to be complete by mid-2024.
Land said the county is looking into repurposing the former church building as a hangar for the airport.
The board also approved renaming Emerson Drive to John King Road and to extend the annual tax listing period to April 15.