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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Conversation about Conover Station and Economic Development

Conover Station -- An Economic Development and Multi-Modal Transportation facility.

Donald Duncan is the City Manager of Conover. Danny Hearn stated that (the Chamber) wants to bring us creative economic development, entrepreneurial driven projects that can give us some optimism and some positive news to look forward to. This project, that is being presented, is something that Conover has been working on for several years.

Don stated that this is a very large project that they have been working on for five years. At that time, when Don took the city manager job, they had no idea what they would do with the Broyhill building. Today they have $5.7 million in grants that are dedicated to this project. Last week they presented to the North Carolina Green conference.

Currently the Conover site is the lead project for the North Carolina Brownfield’s projects. He stated that none of this was planned and this has been hard work. They have had more failures than successes, but they have turned the failures into assets. The goal has been to turn every liability into an asset, into cash assets, increase property values, or turn properties into something no one ever thought they could be.

Don showed a 3-D rendering of a project that was designed by the 1996 Atlanta Olympic committee. This sketch up concept cost tens of millions of dollars. This Olympic Committee was represented by many members who were not technologically savvy. The average age of these individuals was 55 years old. This was a crude walk-through of what the Olympics stadium would look like when it was finished. The members of this Olympic Committee were in awe of what they saw from that crude 3-D rendering.

People could never visualize large scale developments such as this on paper. These types of Visual Media (3-D Renderings) help to sell things. This shows what they have done with the properties associated with the Broyhill property. This had such an effect on people that Don had to calm the people down, because they were so excited by the prospects of what could be done with this property. The problem is that sometimes the media is the message and you have to be careful with that. Sometimes people don't realize what they're buying into.

What they started out what with was a 27 acre site that backs up to Conover's downtown. The site has a footprint of approximately 400,000 sq. ft. Most of these properties come from the early part of the 20th century. It was cobbled together. There were 650,000 sq ft of total building beyond that footprint. There were stone foundations and multiple floors. These buildings were uniquely put together utilizing technology from the early part of the 20th century.

Don stated that Broyhill was a good environmental steward and the sites were very clean. There were buried tanks in the ground that were removed in the early 1980s when the EPA wanted this taken care of. There is some ground contamination and they are currently handling that with a $200,000 cleanup grant from the EPA. They're using new innovative technologies to attempt to remedy this and to remove any of the ecological problems on the site.

The site has a creek that is bisecting the middle of it. 20 years ago they would have covered it up and put a plant on it. They are going to utilize the creek as a water feature and they will utilize the property for storm water. The storm water basin will be used for the downtown area and encompasses 70 acres. This is a liability that has been turned into an asset. The city will own the storm water treatment facility and this allows the full use of all of the property. Tax dollars will maintain this. This would have been wasted land, but instead it will be utilized as a park. There will be walking trails and a passive park. This will be a 3 1/2 to 4 acre park.

The whole site will be integrated into the neighborhood that surrounds it. Modern construction and modern development techniques and standards will be utilized to bring together this site, the neighborhood that surrounds it, the industrial area across Highway 16, and downtown Conover.

What do you do with 1800 feet of railroad? There is a lot of railroad infrastructure located at the site. There used to be a parallel track located on the side. There is a switch where you cross Highway 16 and there is a WPA bridge on the south side of the property, which is architecturally significant.

The Western Piedmont Passenger Rail Committee supports passenger rail and the possibility of bringing it back to the area. Hickory has sold its depot and there is no designated spot located in the Catawba County area. Conover has worked in conjunction with this group to put together a plan to present to the State Department of Transportation. This led to Conover being designated as a stop on the Western North Carolina rail line. Catawba County is the most populated area in the western North Carolina area besides Mecklenburg County. The Department of Transportation is fully supportive of this idea.

Nothing has been done that is antagonistic towards any other community in this area. Work still needs to be done in conjunction with the owners of the railroad. This is not something that will be done overnight. No one knows when the rail could possibly come into existence. There is the possibility that this could come into existence in the next 10 years, because of the stimulus money that has been spent to enhance rail options in the state of North Carolina. Asheville is the number one requested stop in North Carolina by tourists in studies done by Amtrak.

The largest military concentration in the world is located in southeastern North Carolina. The military needs to be able to get goods and military personnel in and out of that area. Every dollar they get spent in western North Carolina will be spent in eastern North Carolina. The goal is to make the ports stronger and have a more expeditious way to move people and equipment in and out of North Carolina. Gov. Perdue is completely behind us.

Stimulus money says that all of this has to be engineered and studies have to be done before the high speed rail is finished. Environmental work is being done on both the eastern and western side of North Carolina. If money is available this will entail 5 to 6 years of time for construction. You're looking at a minimum of 7 to 8 years for this to occur. The state legislature has passed laws to help facilitate development of properties along the rail lines. The railroads are required to respond to any development proposals within 90 days of their submission and this is required by law. If they do not ,then you are allowed to do what you need to do on the property in question as long as you are not inhibiting rail traffic.

I (Thom Shell) asked if this was all existing track that needs to be reconditioned? Don answered yes. This must be upgraded for higher speeds. Freight will run at 50 to 55 mph. Passenger rail will run in the 70 mph range. On the western side of Conover freight will run at 35 mph, while passenger rail will run at around 55 mph. There are topographical issues that prevent high speed rail. Past the Old Fort (NC) area you can only go 15 to 20 mph.

I asked if this was a passenger and industrial link or the western side or just an industrial link? Don stated that this was mainly meant for freight rail. The idea is to have two or three passenger trains available per day for this proposed rail service line. They do not want passenger trains interrupting freight rail. This is looked at as an expensive proposition, but with a cost of $150 million, the cost is less than $1 million per mile. This compares favorably with development of projects on the highways and interstates that cost 10+ times that amount.

Jay Adams pointed out interstates carry a lot more people. Don stated that there are commuter possibilities between Old Fort and Salisbury. From Conover to Raleigh you could be in Raleigh and 3 to 3 1/2 hours. Jay pointed out that this could be a good tool for businesses located on the western side of the state. We want to have our (Industrial) plants dispersed. The rail corridor is a great way to move people and materials between facilities. Don pointed out that there has not been much investment in the rail system since World War II. We have gone from the greatest rail system in the world to the worst rail system in the world in a period of about 30 years.

I asked if there was a vision of this possibly becoming a commuter line in the near future? Don stated that he didn't believe that there was a possibility in the near future. Not until the passenger line is completely reinstituted. In the long-term this might happen. This will not be possible for short trips, but this is a possibility to Raleigh or Marion or Old Fort.

I asked if there was any possibility that there could be a direct connector to Charlotte? Don stated that that is the question that is most often asked. He pointed out that there are existing lines that run through Maiden and there are lines existing in Gaston County to Belmont and into Lincoln County. These lines have been abandoned and property owners have been uncooperative. The Carolina Thread Trail is looking to procure this right of way. He does believe that this is a key. He stated that he does hope that this will happen. He stated that the State has not put enough money into this and Norfolk- Southern has abandoned the tracks.

I asked if the key contingency was the price of fuel? He stated yes. This is the major factor. When we see $4 a gallon people will be screaming for more rail. Rail is just one component of the Conover (Broyhill) site.

Don showed pictures of the main existing infrastructure on the site, this especially includes the Warlong building, which was built at the beginning of the 20th century. This was the most sound building on the site. There is a lot of history to this building. Don went into the specific architecture of this building.

When viewing and discussing the techniques of how these buildings were originally built, Houston Harris asked if we have lost the ingenuity to just make things happen?

Don showed many features of the site, which includes a walkway with a pedestrian bridge and this is dead even with the track and leads to a rail platform. He does not know when this will be done, because the state will build all of these at one time. Money has been designated by the state for this.

Over $2 million will go into the process of renovating the Warlong building. One-third of this building will be utilized as a waiting area for future passenger rail. This building will also have a section devoted as a library. This will be one of the nicest libraries in Catawba County. Another part of this building will be devoted to the transit authority of the area. That is what makes this building a multi-modal facility. People need a way to get around when they get off of the train. This will be a fixed route bus system. There will also be a community facility in the building. This can be utilized for conferences, receptions or other public needs. The community room expands into a patio area.

The Manufacturing Solutions Center hopes to eventually be located at this site. Those developments are still open ended because of funding issues that are currently being addressed. Don stated that they don't want to promise something that they are not going to be able to deliver. The idea of a partnership between the city of Conover, CVCC, and the Manufacturing Solutions Center is to get the facility (MSC) out of the educational environment and make businesses realize that the focus is on business. They want to do things at the speed of business to help business. There is an advantage with the library for research issues and this is proposed to be associated with N.C. State University. The community center can also be used as a conference facility for purposes related to the Manufacturing Solutions Center.

There is also a residential aspect to this community. But, under current circumstances the market is flooded and currently this is only a fallback plan. What he is trying to accomplish is a more viable downtown. People say that Wal-Mart killed downtown, but Don stated that he believes the interstate system killed downtown. The idea is for this to be a development where people can take a 10 minute walk and go utilize multiple services. They are just trying to get back to what existed 100 years ago.

Jay Adams pointed out the great product that Conover has to offer. He talked about the terrific assets and a community that is optimizing those assets; and he complemented Conover on taking the negatives and turning them into positives. He stated that in his business that this type of mindset creates enthusiasm on both sides of the equation.

There will be a new website which will be launched next month. Michael Neely is the developer of this site. Don basically stated that there is no idea that they have not listened to and no possibility that they have dismissed. They are willing to listen to any and everyone about anything that is proposed.

I asked about what appears to be loose reigns and I stated that it appears that they have not been micromanaged. What created this environment in Conover? Don stated that there is a lot of give and take and it takes a lot of vision and a lot of different personalities have to get along. The city's team has had to learn to understand the needs of one another. There has been a lot of changeover on the Conover City Council. He stated that this was neither good nor bad, but the previous Council did not want to put the money into what it would take to be a developer. They did not want this development to be a drag on the town. The present council wants this development to be a gift to the city and a help to the city.

The political connotation of this development is that if it fails everyone attached to its neck is in the noose. Many people (governments) don't want to take that sort of risk. There has already been a changeover on Conover City Council, not all of it related to this issue, but maybe some of it. This could lead to more turnover if it were to fail. Many average citizens do not understand the site.

The city has not hired professional PR people to promote this site and its development. Don has taken it upon himself to go personally address small groups to bring them into the loop on this issue. The average citizen cares mostly that taxes are kept low and the city delivers services that are expected to be provided smoothly and efficiently. Other than services, this is the number one priority of the city of Conover. As long as those services are running smoothly and efficiently this is the number one focus.

Patti Thompson stated that she had to admit that she had never heard about this until she attended a graduation presentation in which it was addressed. She stated that she was excited about this project, but she thought it was a mall and she really didn’t understand what the entire project encompassed, it is still somewhat of an intangible.

Jay stated that the real activity will come when you interface with the development community. They will create the housing, office buildings, and retail. They are excited when that they see things such as this. It is about making the connection. Don asked, “How many communities are willing to take on this type of liability?” As a municipality, Conover has had a lot of leverage with regulatory agencies. This has helped a lot. Regulatory agencies are used to dealing with private developers and not with public entities.

I stated that economic development does not happen in the past or present, it happens in the future. Don said he disagreed. It starts today. You will not see the fruit of the labor until 5 or 10 years later. He talked about the Apple development. He said that it took Duke Power damming the river and the loss of industry in order to have the excess energy capacity available that is needed for this facility. So it took 100 years for the circumstances to be right for this development take place. He talked about the IBT (Inter-Basin Transfer). This is not the huge deal today, that it will be in the future.

Most governments will not take the risk that is necessary for this sort of development. He joked that this was kamikaze approach. Don stated that it is a necessity not to overstate what they are doing with this site.

Kevin Spencer talked about the hurdles that Conover has had to jump. He pontificated about, “…can you imagine if an independent entity were to try and do something like this, not a city.” Jay stated that Don has plowed a garden to create economic development. Kevin stated that an individual would not be able to do this. A business would not be able take on this kind of risk. Jay stated that businesses appreciate when they see this. Kevin said we have got to overcome that and stated that there is not another community in this area that would be willing to do this. Businesses will say it ain’t worth it. Jay laughed and stated that his attitude was, “Let’s go to Conover.”

The success of Conover will force other communities to take a look at what Conover is doing. Don asked that we not compare Conover to their contemporaries. He stated that government's responsibility is to take the obstacles out of the equation. That is what government is for. Don stated that you can have all the vision in the world, but if you don't take action then it is nothing but a dream.

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