Guilford County is making it official.
The Board of Commissioners has voted to close down Project Haystack – the giant but non-existent 2,000-acre data center park in eastern Guilford County and western Alamance County that was supposed to add over 5,000 jobs to the local economy, bring in $6 billion in investment and transform the Guilford County Prison Farm and the surrounding area into a sprawling high-tech megasite.
The project, now all but forgotten, was the toast of the town in late 2013 and 2014, when it generated an amazing amount of interest, support and excitement – and caused consternation among many residents in the large rural area that was expected to be affected.
While Project Haystack came in with a giant bang, it left with a whimper: Recently, with no discussion and zero publicity, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners voted to move $3,600 in a fund for the project back into the county’s construction fund and finally close the books on the ill-fated project that three-and-a-half years ago caused so much hoopla – but a project that’s only contribution to the local economy in the end was moving about $80,000 of Guilford County and City of Greensboro tax dollars into the pockets of a few consultants and attorneys.
The Rhino Times first learned of the giant secret project after discovering that the City of Greensboro had, in secret, funded a feasibility study for the project at the Guilford County Prison Farm. After word of the proposed Project Haystack got out, backers showed off elaborate plans for the 2,000-acre chimera, which was the main focus of local economic development officials at the time. However, when the issue came up for the vote at the Board of Commissioners’ last meeting, there wasn’t so much as a whimper before the board voted unanimously to kill the project.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips said it was a very easy vote for him to cast.
“It took me about a millisecond to decide that one,” Phillips said of his vote to shut down the project.
When asked about discussions or any attempts to move forward on the project in recent months, Phillips replied, “In a word – zero.”
In 2013, Commissioners Alan Branson and Hank Henning were the only two county commissioners to vote against spending $30,000 in taxpayer money to advance the project.
Branson joked this week, “They couldn’t find the needle in that haystack.”
It is the same final fate of many projects that have been pursued for the Prison Farm area over the last 20 years, including a Wal-Mart distribution center, a German airplane supply parts plant and a Christian theme park that the Rhino Times dubbed Project Praystack.
One thing that hasn’t helped any of those causes is that most of the residents in that area want to keep the landscape exactly like it is.
Branson attended a lot of area citizen meetings back in 2013 and 2014 where many of his constituents voiced objections to the data center development in eastern Guilford County. This week, Branson said that preserving the rural nature of much of his district in northwest Guilford County is just fine with him and with most of the residents there.
If it had proceeded, Project Haystack, as proposed, would have cost state and local taxpayers an estimated $103 million; however, in the end it only cost local taxpayers about $79,000 – $53,000 of which went to the study the City of Greensboro funded and $26,400 that Guilford County spent on lawyers and attempted land acquisition. The $30,000 the county approved was to be used toward acquiring land for the project and to creating an “interlocal agreement” between the local governments involved.
One of the good things from a taxpayer standpoint is that a great deal of the cost – spent in the year and a half before the project became public – was paid out by the national and global companies that stood to rake in money on the back end if the area’s local governments approved Project Haystack. Those companies would have made money by building the infrastructure whether or not a single data center ever came to Guilford County.
Many representatives of those companies flew into Guilford County on their own company’s dimes when they made a huge public information presentation at a large work session held on Nov. 21, 2013. At that meeting, many presenters projected thousands of jobs and billions in outside investment if Guilford and Alamance counties, the cities of Burlington and Greensboro, and other partners, went ahead and built the infrastructure. But everyone knows what happens to the bestlaid plans of mice and men, and apparently sometimes that same thing happens to the plans of consultants, economic development officials and local government leaders.
In the project’s plans, Guilford County was expected to shell out $15 million for land acquisition – land that it was then supposed to give away to companies who wanted to use it.
The documents presented at the November 2013 meeting also called for $43 million to be paid by the Project Haystack Authority, which was to be created by an interlocal agreement: $10 million for “on-site roadway improvements,” $3 million for fiber infrastructure, $10 million for other infrastructure, another $10 million for landscaping and $10 million for design, legal and permitting work.
As far as the Rhino Times could discern, the only land Guilford County ever came close to acquiring for Project Haystack was 77 acres of swampy land that the seller had put on the market before the initiative was made public. The fact that longtime landowners in the area didn’t want to sell their family land didn’t help the project at all.
And while it was clear Guilford County would see a big increase in property values, it was never exactly clear what Alamance County would get out of the partnership – though, at one point, the partners did explore a 50-year agreement during which a certain percentage of the increase in property values in Guilford County would have gone to Alamance County.
An article that ran in the News & Record at the height of the excitement proclaimed, “Over 20 years, the site could become one of the largest tech developments in the Southeast, with 6.65 million square feet of data centers and 4.75 million square feet of advanced manufacturing.”
Greensboro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Brent Christensen arrived in Guilford County nearly two years ago, after the project was on the downturn.
He said this week that companies and the economic development community do at times revisit the idea of using that area for potential projects – but now that the airport is the center of focus, along with the Greensboro-Randolph megasite, it is much more on the backburner.
“I think we look at it on occasion,” Christensen said of the 800-plus acres in Guilford and Alamance counties that have seen minimal development in the last three years.
Christensen also mentioned something that was not focused on much at the time Project Haystack was all the rage: Unlike manufacturing plants or distribution centers, data centers create very few jobs.
“Initially there was a lot of thought that it would be an ideal spot for data centers,” Christensen said of the Prison Farm area, “but you are utilizing a lot of space for not many jobs.”
He also said a lot of infrastructure would be needed, including road expansion, before developing much of that area.
Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes, who always knows about anything going on with the Prison Farm, said there’s not a whiff of a project in the area at the present time.
Guilford County Budget Director Mike Halford said the decision to close down the project now is because staff periodically goes through the budget and eliminates projects that are no longer timely.
Branson said an 800-acre piece of land held by one owner is a rarity no matter what purpose is planned for it. He said he’s fine with not developing the giant piece of property that is no longer used as a Prison Farm but is now farmed by those renting the land from the county. The commissioner also said the county’s Parks and Recreation Commission may discuss the best ways to use the property this year.
“I would like to see it stay as it is,” Branson said. “My personal feeling would be to keep it farmland to grow crops and look at horse trails and maybe some fishing areas.”
He added that he’d like to see the land used for tractor pulls or equestrian events rather than corporate distribution centers or high-tech data centers.