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  • Allen Turner

Economic developer says 2017 groundwork should mean good 2018

Groundwork laid in 2017 will pay dividends for Columbus County in 2018, an optimistic county Economic Developer Gary Lanier says.

“The biggest economic development news for Columbus County in 2017 was the whole Georgia Pacific deal,” Lanier says, referring to a decision by the Columbus County board of commissioners to purchase the former G-P site and offer it as a site for future industrial development.

The county in 2017 entered into an agreement for the R.J. Corman Railroad Co. to purchase the property, but the sale has not been finalized pending negotiations underway concerning potential asbestos concerns on the property.

“Project Black,” an unnamed company said to specialize in a new bio-fuels process, has long been interested in the Georgia Pacific property, and R.J. Corman agreed last fall to purchase the property from the county for $2.15 million with an eye toward making it available to Project Black for development as an industrial site.

Lanier is hopeful that negotiations between the county and R.J. Corman will come to successful fruition before the end of February but that, even if Project Black doesn’t locate here, three different companies have expressed an interest in space on the site.

“Once we know who is going to ultimately own it, we’ll be able to move forward,” Lanier says. “If it’s going to be Columbus County, then we can go ahead and sell off the used equipment on the site and scrap everything and turn it into some sort of industrial park. Or if R.J. Corman buys it and turns it over to Project Black, or some other industry for which Corman would provide rail service, then prospects for that site still are good,” Lanier says. “There are a lot of good opportunities with that site.”

Lanier defends what he says was good forethought by his bosses, the Columbus County commissioners, in purchasing the site.

“I’ll say it to anybody who wants to listen: Our county commissioners did the best purchase probably in the history of Columbus County when they bought that site, because they protected it so it can be used to create a lot of jobs. I realize that a lot of people out in the public don’t understand how valuable an industrial site that property is with the infrastructure that’s already in place there, but the purchase of that land was the best decision the county commissioners have ever made for economic development here.”

He continues, “These guys get beat up sometimes and it isn’t fair. I know some people have said any available county funds should be spent on education, but you can have the best schools in the world but if you don’t have somewhere for your students to go to work after they have graduated, you haven’t helped the county. I think our commissioners understand that, and they’ve made a strategic decision to help create jobs here, and that’s what we need.”

The decision by the county to purchase the site for a little over $2 million was a viable one, Lanier says, because even if the Project Black/R.J. Corman deals don’t work out, the county should be able to recoup 40-50 percent of what they paid for the land through selling and salvaging used equipment on the site, and the county will be left with an industrial location to market.

“We need space for economic development in Columbus County,” Lanier says. “The business incubator in Tabor City is about full. And at the Southeastern Regional Park (near Southeastern Community College), there are a couple of projects in the works that we can’t talk about right now, but there are some opportunities in the works that involve the former Tortimex facility and the former Nice Blends facility right behind Tortimex. We’ve only got two buildings left in the county available for industrial development right now, and we’re really close to working some deals on both of those. If that happens, it’s going to be good for job creation.”

He continues, “The negative is that if those deals go through, we’re basically going to be out of open industrial buildings in Columbus County for further economic development.”

Lanier is also optimistic about development of the industrial park at the Columbus-Brunswick county line on the eastern end of the county.

“It is a super park and with us getting a state grant to finish the sewer system and get water all the way into the park, it’s a very positive thing. That park is so close to the port in Wilmington that it’s a perfect setup for an industrial site.”

Direct rail service from Columbus County to Wilmington also would be a boon to the area, Lanier agrees. “We just had a study done,” he says, “but there’s limited funding to expand service. You’re talking about a multi-million dollar project, and you would need more rail customers on the R.J. Corman line for it to make sense.”

Lanier says, “If Project Black hit and all of a sudden Corman happened to be moving 7,000 rail cars of product a year to a port somewhere, then all of a sudden that 30-mile stretch (of abandoned rail lines) makes a lot more sense than it does when you only have a few hundred cars a year going down the railroad track. It’s all volume related.”

Lanier is bullish about two 2017 tourism-related developments which should bode well for Columbus County’s economy in 2018. A “zipline” aerial adventure park is set to open on the eastern side of the county in the Riegelwood area in 2018, and – on the other end – Fair Bluff in western Columbus is on track to become home to a large animal rescue sanctuary.

“I feel good about our prospects for 2018,” Lanier says. “No doubt about it, Project Black and R.J. Corman are important, but regardless of what happens with Project Black I feel like R.J. Corman is going to be a critical partner for economic development for years and years to come in Columbus County.”

“I know a lot of people are pessimistic,” the economic developer says, “but I’m the eternal optimist when it comes to our economic future in Columbus County.”

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