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Garner tries to attract biotech to old ConAgra site

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On a June morning in 2009, an explosion tore through a Slim Jim manufacturing plant in Garner, killing four people and injuring 38 others. After the accident, ConAgra—owner of Slim Jim—packed up and shipped out of Garner for Ohio, leaving the factory abandoned and hundreds of people out of work.

Fast forward four and a half years. The 98-acre former ConAgra site is ready to go on the market early next year. The nonprofit Garner Economic Development Corp. is tasked with finding a buyer, or buyers, preferably from the biotechnology or pharmaceutical fields. The group wants to attract companies that pay higher than the Wake County average annual wage of $46,8000.

"What's good for the region," says Garner Town Manager Hardin Watkins, "what's good for Wake County, what's good for Garner, is to find something that can lift up the wages for the people that are here. If we can be a little bit patient, we're going to improve the amount of dollars coming into Wake County and put in peoples' pockets."

On Dec. 11, Garner will host an open house for developers, real estate agents and commerce officials to learn about the site. The Garner Economic Development Department will bring in biotech experts early next year to come up with a list of companies that would be a good match for the site.

The redevelopment of the former ConAgra site is about more than jobs: It's also about Garner's identity as it tries to brand itself as more than a bedroom community for Raleigh. And it's about expanding the tech and biotech culture from Research Triangle Park, Raleigh and Durham—the cities are also home to several such companies, including Citrix, Red Hat and the start-ups at American Underground—to towns outside the main metro areas.

Jim Shamp is the public relations director of the N.C. Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park, which works statewide to align potential life science employers with appropriate sites. Shamp says one of the center's goals is to "spread the wealth" of North Carolina's assets well beyond RTP.

ConAgra gave the town $3 million and the 98-acre site off Jones Sausage Road and pledged to help re-create the same investment on the property. The company also assumed responsibility in perpetuity for any environmental problems at the site connected to its operations.

As a result, the site—now scoured of all buildings—has "some extremely attractive features, especially for biomanufacturing," Shamp says. These include the amount of acreage, existing utilities and an on-site wastewater treatment facility that can accommodate 500,000 gallons a day. As important is its proximity to N.C. State University and Raleigh—just seven miles away—and Interstate 40.

Around 770 people worked at the Garner ConAgra plant before the explosion. The plant had operated for nearly 50 years and, at that time, was the only location where Slim Jim products were made.

The Garner Economic Development Corp. (GEDC) formed in early 2011, after ConAgra announced it would give the manufacturing site to the town. Because the soil and groundwater are contaminated with the solvent PERC, (perchloroethylene), the GEDC enrolled the site into the state's brownfields program, which indemnifies future developers from liability related to previous uses of the property. ConAgra, now in a state cleanup program, is charged with remediating the site, according to its contract with Garner. The soil can be decontaminated, but because PERC persists in groundwater, it can't be used for irrigation, for example. However, all of Garner is connected to the City of Raleigh's public utilities, so the facility would have access to that system.

"For a developer or a new client coming in," says Beasley, the town's liaison to the GEDC. "they know what the environmental concerns are, they're identified, and they're not held responsible for them. For the first five years, the developer gets a huge tax credit for redeveloping the site, so that's sort of the carrot." Local and state tax breaks total 90 percent in the first year and then are reduced for four years.

In late 2011, the group commissioned a team of consulting firms to help come up with a redevelopment strategy for the site. The goals were to bring in a company, or companies, with jobs that paid higher than county average wages; have a tax base greater than or equal to ConAgra's $55 million investment; recoup the 440 jobs that were left at the time of ConAgra's closing; and emerge as a sustainable industry cluster.

According to the RTP-based design firm O'Brien/Atkins Associates, the redevelopment could include a campus- style setting for one company's research, manufacturing and administration buildings. The site is also large enough for several companies.

Ken Atkins, executive director of the Wake County Economic Development board, says, "These are big projects, often with investments well above $100 million, with the employment of several hundred people. It could be a couple of years from beginning to final decision on projects that big. One thing we talked about with the Garner elected officials is they need to be patient. It's a big opportunity, but it's not happening quickly. It may be another three years before we can really work a deal out."

This article has been corrected to note that Tony Beasley is the town's liaison to the GEDC; he is not the head of it. Also, due to an editing error, this story said that a future tenant would have to find an alternate source of water because the groundwater is contaminated. A future tenant could not use the groundwater for irrigation, for example, but would be connected to Raleigh Public Utilities for other uses, such as drinking.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Spread the wealth."

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