On the job satisfaction index, Orange County economic developer ranks pretty low, alongside Cary welfare administrator and the lonely Maytag repairman. High-profile retail projects and corporate recruiting coups in Orange County are scarce, limited by a combination of land use restrictions, competition from aggressive neighbors, a lack of infrastructure, the county's historical resistance to business incentives, and its reputation as hostile to growth in general and commercial development in particular.
When representatives of mega-retailer Cabela's inquired a couple of years ago about setting up shop within the county's borders, then-Economic Development Commission director Dianne Reid and Board of County Commissioners chairman Barry Jacobs connected them with several local developers, whose credits included Southern Village, Meadowmont and Hillsborough's new Gateway Center. After incubating various ideas over the intervening months, the development group has submitted a proposal to build one of the largest commercial projects the county has seen in years. It's enough to make the county's oft-frustrated economic developers salivate with excitement.
Dubbed Buckhorn Village, the project will cover 128 acres at the intersection of Buckhorn Road and Interstates 85/40 between Efland and Mebane. If approved, three sectors on the site will include combinations of big-box and small retailers, offices, hotels, restaurants, housing, a movie theater and other amenities. Projections show that Buckhorn Village will create about 2,500 jobs and generate more than $7 million annually in property and sales tax revenue for the county.
Moreover, the project will be located in one of the three economic development districts the county created in 1994 in order to concentrate and spur commercial growth. The Buckhorn EDD has drawn little interest since the districts were approved after years of discussion and planning.
So at first glance, Buckhorn Village seems right up the county's alley. And that's the way at least some economic development types are pitching it: At a recent public hearing before the County Commissioners, Chapel Hill Chamber of Commerce official Adam Klein intoned that the proposal was "exactly what the [EDD] was designed for." Klein submitted an economic impact analysis commissioned by the Chamber that practically glowed with rosy numbers.
One can hardly blame Klein for his enthusiasm. Opportunities to stem the outflow of sales tax revenues from county residents who buy their goods elsewhere, long identified as a problem the county needs to rectify, have rarely come along. Landing a prize like Cabela's, an outdoor lifestyle shop and much-coveted "destination retailer" that draws shoppers from miles away, would silence the critics who carp at Orange County's antipathy toward development and could offer the kind of instant credibility to make the county a player in future deals. Take that, Wake, Durham and Alamance!
Had the Buckhorn Village proposal been submitted in Wake, Durham or Alamance, it would likely already be on a fast track to groundbreaking. But much to the chagrin of those who would prefer an unfettered approach to growth, Orange County has traveled a different highway than its neighbors the last few decades. And contrary to Klein's assertion, the proposal on the table is not clearly consistent with the county's longstanding vision for its future and may in fact be diametrically opposed, at least in some key respects.
First and perhaps foremost, the original concept for the Buckhorn EDD called for a mix of light manufacturing and research facilities, not retail. While it's true that no such outfits have come knocking, that can be attributed primarily to the fact that water and sewer was not available in the area. Commissioner Jacobs notes that he met with state commerce officials at various times over the years to discuss the possibilities for Buckhorn, but the response was always the same: Let us know when you have water and sewer and we can talk. Water and sewer was finally extended to the area in late 2006 with the completion of Gravelly Hill Middle School. Not long afterward, economic development director Reid left to take a similar position in Chatham County, and the development office has been in maintenance mode under an interim director since.
A high-tech campus at Buckhorn may be an unrealistic fantasy, but it's never really been pursued. The plans for the county's other two EDDs have been revised or are in the process of revision, but the county has never stated its intent to abandon its concept for Buckhorn.
In a related vein, discussions that led to finalization of the Buckhorn EDD plan included a general desire to populate it with businesses that paid high or at least living wages. Retail jobs tend to be on the lower end of the pay scale and do not always meet that threshold; Cabela's follows the Wal-Mart model, with a large percentage of its workers employed part-time with few benefits.
Other questions about the proposal abound. Developers estimate that Buckhorn will create 2,500 jobs, with 1,700 going to Orange County residents, but as Commissioner Mike Nelson pointed out at the public hearing, Orange County has only 2,300 unemployed residents, not all of whom could or would work there. "Where are those [1,700] people going to come from?" Nelson asked.
Another potential point of contention that has been bubbling under the surface: the prospect that the developers or their tenants are going to ask for state and county tax breaks or other incentives. Cabela's in particular has extracted huge incentives packages in many of its deals, including one in South Carolina that has been vigorously opposed by Gov. Mark Sanford as unfair to existing businesses. The state, which has thrown money at companies to locate in North Carolina or just to stay, has drawn the line at retail businesses. Orange County has no official policy on incentives, but unlike its neighbors has been disinclined to hand them out. "I think our default policy is that it's never been done," Jacobs says.
At least some subsidies will be required to make the project viable. In order to handle expected traffic volumes, the road system around Buckhorn will need major improvements that at a minimum will include expanding the interstate on- and off-ramps and bridge overpass as well as the secondary roads feeding the project. The price tag, for which the developer is responsible unless the state Department of Transportation covers the cost, would likely exceed eight figures. Even if DOT wanted to help out, its backlog of needed road improvements throughout the state already stretches to the horizon.
Orange County has also been adamant about environmental stewardship, applying green thinking to many of its decisions about growth. The Buckhorn Village proposal incorporates a number of environmentally sound principles, and developers have a solid track record of implementing green design, but that's insufficient for some residents who see Buckhorn as an outmoded, vehicle-oriented pollution generator. Carrboro Planning Board chairman James Carnahan has lobbied against Buckhorn, primarily on environmental grounds. "It would be totally inappropriate and imprudent to approve this project," Carnahan said at the hearing.
Whether Buckhorn can realize its lofty goals for the county is similarly open to debate. The economic impact statement produced by the Chamber conveniently included only the projected benefits and left the costs out of the equation. The expense of providing such services as police and fire protection and public transportation will erode the tax take, as will other direct and indirect costs. According to Assistant County Manager Willie Best, the county has hired an outside firm to prepare a more balanced and thorough economic analysis.
Other elements of the plan seem like wishful thinking. Though the developers say they're committed to attracting locally owned businesses to Buckhorn, making that happen is another matter: Witness Durham's Streets at Southpoint, which counts only a handful of locals among its 200-odd storefronts. The idea that two higher-end hotels will choose to locate on a remote stretch of interstate between Durham and Burlington, as the plan foresees, seems like a stretch. Cabela's may attract consumers from afar, but reports from other Cabela's communities indicate that they usually shop and leave, and that the spinoff benefits to nearby businesses are more marginal than substantial. As for folks buying the 200 residential units in the plan that will be plunked atop the shops and overlook vast swaths of asphalt, maybe, maybe not.
And then there's the matter of Cabela's itself: Rumors are now flying that the chain has pulled out of the deal. Buckhorn development team member John Fugo is proscribed by confidentiality agreements from speaking directly to the rumor or even confirming that Cabela's has been negotiating , but the resistance the company would face to its customary incentives demands as well as other economic factors may doom its participation regardless. If the big fish escapes, the idea to "attract new types of retail that does not exist in other retail areas along this [interstate] corridor" may be impossible, and the Buckhorn plan may have to be amended. "There's not very many replacements for a tenant like a Cabela's," Fugo acknowledges.
Slam-dunk assertions, pro and con, notwithstanding, that's a lot for county officials to digest before their stated intent to vote on the proposal by June 3. And they may ultimately have to defer a final decision until another day. But county planners, elected officials and others responsible for making the decision insist they will not rush to judgment, and that the county's slow, methodical, comprehensive approach will not be compromised by outside pressures. "Everything will be looked at," says Planning Department staffer Michael Harvey. "Everything has to be reviewed to determine if it's appropriate. This project is far from over."
If the delays ultimately scare off the developers, Cabela's or anyone else, so be it. To proceed otherwise would be to toss years of work into the garbage, an unmistakable flip of the bird to the hundreds of citizens who have devoted their time and energy to help plan the county's future. No matter how much revenue the county might forgo in the short run as a result, that would be still too high a price to pay.
Correction (April 23, 2008): The number of residential units in the proposed Buckhorn development was incorrect; there are 200.