Guilford County may not be attracting all of the new business prospects it would like to have, but, according to a report put out by a state economic development group, the county does have a wealth of buildings ready to host businesses should they decide to locate or start up here.
The new study is from the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, a nonprofit public-private partnership under contract with the NC Department of Commerce that works to promote economic development across the state. That analysis of available buildings and business structures in the state found that Guilford County was second in North Carolina counties for the amount of “existing building sites available for economic development.”
The study, which looked at the numbers of available buildings in all 100 counties as of June, stated that Guilford County had 215 structures that meet the criteria, meaning that Guilford County trails only Mecklenburg County, which had 334 buildings ready for use or upfitting.
Rowan County, where Salisbury is the county seat, was third with 175, and Cabarrus County, where Concord is the county seat, came in fourth at 124. Cabarrus County borders Mecklenburg County, and Rowan County borders Cabarrus.
Wake County, the home of our state government in Raleigh, with 120 available buildings listed for sale or lease, came in fifth.
On the other end of the spectrum, six North Carolina counties – all of them in the eastern part of the state – had zero buildings ready for development or occupancy according to the report. Those six are Camden, Currituck, Gates, Hyde, Jones and Tyrrell counties. About 17 other North Carolina counties had only one or two suitable, infrastructure-ready available structures on the market for business or commercial use.
The classification the Economic Development Partnership used for the study is “any existing structure with the necessary infrastructure needed for economic development that has been put on the market for sale or lease by the owner.” That list includes vacant office buildings, commercial buildings, industrial facilities and structures that have previously been warehouses or have housed distribution or manufacturing operations.
The large number of available empty buildings in Guilford County is good news in that it indicates there are a lot of available sites for a company looking to locate in Guilford County, but it is also indicative of the departure of previous businesses and industry.
Richard Beard, an owner of Greensboro-based commercial real estate company Schulman & Beard, has worked as a site development consultant for nearly two decades. He said Guilford County often has good availability – but he added that it all hinges on the size and nature of the project.
“It depends what companies are looking for,” Beard said. “If it’s an industrial user looking for 100 acres, then it’s hard to find.”
Beard reviewed a sample of the buildings included in the state’s database used by the Economic Development Partnership for the study and he said the list was lacking in some respects. He said the state’s database was not being kept current and with regard to the properties included that he said were “some good – many not so good.”-
Since the database is often lagging the real world property transactions, Guilford County also has available structures that haven’t been added to the database. In addition, there are some properties that are on the market that are included but are unsuitable or unattractive because of location, design, road access, zoning restrictions or other limitations that might mean the structure isn’t viable for many economic development purposes, even if it was included on the list.
“The state’s website is not comprehensive of everything,” Beard said.
Area economic development officials have complained about the accuracy of the state’s existing database of business properties, and, recently, the Guilford County Economic Development Alliance (GCEDA) – a group formed by Guilford County and the cities of High Point and Greensboro – began building their “web portal,” a searchable database of available buildings and sites.
Beard said the new web portal and database will hopefully let prospects – as well as area economic development officials – know what buildings and other sites are for sale or lease.
“In the past, they didn’t really know what we had but that’s changing,” Beard said.
David Ramsey, vice president of economic development for the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce, also said the state’s information isn’t always accurate when it comes to available sites in this county.
“The state is about to refresh that database and make sure it’s up to date,” Ramsey said.
He added that, for many projects in Guilford County, there’s usually a good selection of locations, but he added that it really depends on the specific needs of the client.
“In Guilford County, when we get an RFI [requests for information], we typically have sufficient inventory to submit to the prospects,” Ramsey said. “But I think every economic development official would say that we want more.”
Ramsey said there’s clearly some high-quality available office space. He said he and others just toured the Steelcase Inc. building in High Point and found it to be attractive.
In May 2014, Steelcase, an office furniture maker, announced it would be closing its High Point operations over a two-year period and it would lay off 230 workers. That 250,000-square-foot building south of US 85 and US 311 was built in 2002 and contains both warehouse and office space.
“It’s cool space,” Ramsey said.
He said the chamber wants to have options in the county for smallest projects to the largest.
He said that for 20-acre or 30-acre projects, there’s a pretty good selection, but when it comes to very large projects, the options are limited.
“Over 100 acres, it becomes a little more finite,” Ramsey said. “I’d like to have more inventory out there greater than 100 acres – and even 50.”
He said he’s glad this area is forming a megasite.
The Greensboro-Randolph Megasite is in Randolph County, if successful, is expected to reap benefits for Guilford County’s economy.
“Everybody talks about a megasite,” he said. “It’s fantastic that we have one, because not every community does.”
Ramsey also said aviation is a key target industry for Guilford County and that a new taxiway bridge will unleash a lot of potential at Piedmont Triad International Airport.
“That is an aviation aerospace megasite without a doubt,” Ramsey said of the area at and around the airport. “If a manufacturing company needs a runway, we are primed.”
According to Beard, having a good number of available structures and sites ready for use is just one component necessary for bringing in economic development. He said Guilford County has competed hard for some big fish that have landed with a large economic bang just one county over.
“We’ve had a lot of projects go to Alamance County,” Beard said. “I think one reason is their tax rate is a whole lot better.”
Beard said there are positives for growth in Guilford County. He said that, for instance, Guilford County’s Planning and Development Department had become more business friendly. As a developer of Rock Creek Center industrial park in eastern Guilford County, he’s dealt a lot with that department.
“The cheapest incentive is efficient planning and permitting,” Beard said.
He added that Guilford County Planning Director Leslie Bell, Deputy Planning Director Les Eger and other staff have been very helpful to area business growth by making the county’s planning department business-friendly.
“That has not always been the case,” Beard added. “The county has had bumps in the road.”
He said there are other perks Guilford County can showcase as well.
“Say Yes to Education is a huge marketing tool,” he said. “You bring your kid here and they get a free college education. There’s no other county in North Carolina that can say that. They’re cutting the first checks as we speak.”
Beard said the cost of business and skilled labor are also factors. We have some challenges on labor skills.
“This is why we need to do a better job educating our kids, including encouraging community colleges and learning trades,” he said. “Plumbers make a hell of a living and it’s something I should consider.”