For area leaders, Thursday, Jan. 25 was a day to come together and express a little collective grief over not winning the giant Toyota-Mazda car plant for the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite. But it was also, of course, a day of celebration over the fact that Greensboro and Guilford County came within a hair’s breadth of landing a truly game-changing and nationally sought after project of the type the community has been seeking for years.

That message of celebration was the main theme for local leaders the first thing in the morning on Jan. 25 at an economic development meeting, and it was the same later that night at the 2018 Greensboro Chamber of Commerce Annual Dinner.

In the morning, elected leaders and economic development officials discussed the issue at a meeting of the Guilford County Economic Development Alliance (GCEDA) – that group’s first meeting since the news that the car makers had chosen to locate their plant in Alabama rather than at the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite, just south of Guilford County.

About 10 hours later, the message was exactly the same at the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce Annual Dinner in the Imperial Ballroom of the Koury Convention Center at the Sheraton Greensboro Hotel at Four Seasons. At that event, the big project that got away was referred to many times by speakers who wanted to emphasize, not the negative aspects of the loss, but the tremendous positives that came out of the process and the causes for optimism that were made evident by the near loss. The central theme of the night was this: Coming so very close to being chosen meant that this area is teetering on the precipice of very great things.

One speaker everyone wanted to hear from was Meredith O’Connor, the lead site consultant for the project. O’Conner, the international director for the site consulting and real estate investment firm of Jones Lang LaSalle Inc., worked closely with area and state officials in the talks with Toyota-Mazda.

She said that, last year, she had just learned that Toyota was looking for a new site (Mazda would join later) when Guilford County economic development officials came to her office in Chicago to pitch the megasite.

“The timing could not be more perfect,” O’Conner said. “I had just been told about 48 hours before that that Toyota wanted to look for a plant.”

She said of the Greensboro-Randolph County Megasite, “It met almost every single criteria that we had just discussed 48 hours prior. So, out of the 307 sites that we had on our list, I ran back to our office to make sure it was on there, and, low and behold, it wasn’t.”

She said she talked with her staff who hadn’t included it on the list because they weren’t sure the site was ready yet.

She said the site was then pitched to Toyota.

“They said, ‘we want it on the list,’” she said.

From that point, O’Connor said, it was the people of this area and those in state government who helped make this site so appealing. O’Conner said everyone involved with the project felt an “unbelievable welcoming” from “the very top of the state to all the people that shook our hands and wanted to meet.”

“I can tell you I traveled to 27 states for this project and, by far, this was the best state we visited, and the most welcoming,” she said, offering a line that got a lot of applause from those in the ballroom.

“There can only be one winner and we feel like we chose a winner – it just wasn’t you this time,” she said. “The point of me being here is to tell you that your team has done a fantastic job and worked so hard, and I beg you, as we say in the auto industry, don’t take your foot off the gas – please.”

She said the notoriety that the search brought the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite is already starting to reap rewards.

“We have gotten a number of calls since the selection, and people wanted to know what Toyota didn’t take and why; and, as you read the paper, you will understand that people know you were a runner up and there is a lot to say about that,” O’Connor said.

She added that the intense effort that went into preparing the site over the last five months has also made it so that the site is nearly shovel ready.   She said that years of work had been done in five months and added that it was “almost unfair, in that people are almost unable to move that fast.”

“But North Carolina moved that fast,” she said.

“As a community, and as a team, I just want to commend you,” she added. “I think you should have a sense of pride like no other because you deserve it.”

She also said that, coming from a big city, she was “very envious of how cool it is to be in a small town,” and added that the whole experience had her rethinking her future.

“Somebody will find a user for this site and it will be very soon,” she said. “So have a very clear path forward, keep your foot on the gas and please keep the champagne cold because I think we’ll be back pretty soon.”

When O’Connor concluded her speech at the dinner with “Keep the champagne cold,” Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan leaned over to the Rhino Times reporter and said, “There’s your headline.”

Vaughan said later that she’d eaten lunch at Proximity Hotel with O’Connor earlier that day and said the discussion had generated a lot of optimism.

Though the area hadn’t won the massive auto project, the room was filled with hope and there were other matters of business besides the 800-pound car plant in the room, or rather, not in the room.

At the annual dinner, Louise Brady, a co-founder of Piedmont Capital Partners, received the chamber’s ATHENA Leadership Award for excellence in community service and promoting leadership skills in women.

Cheryl Stewart received the O. Henry Award from the Chamber and ArtsGreensboro. That award recognizes lifetime contributions to the arts. Stewart has been a consultant for the Public Art Endowment of the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, Piedmont Triad International Airport and others.

Pat Danahy, the former CEO of the Greensboro Partnership, won the Thomas Z. Osborne Distinguished Citizen Award, which honors extraordinary community service and achievement.

The annual dinner ended on a very high note with the chamber honoring the 2017-2018 NC A&T State University football team that went undefeated and became the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HPCU) national champions. Many of the 700 people in the room that night shouted out “Ag-GIE-pride!” – the cheer made famous by the university’s fans.

When it came to the loss of the Toyota-Mazda project, many of the messages that night were the same as the ones conveyed hours earlier at the GCEDA meeting.

At that morning meeting, Greensboro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Brent Christensen said of the loss of Toyota-Mazda project, “This stung and it still stings a little bit.”

Christensen also said Amazon had eliminated Guilford County as a site for its next headquarters, another project that’s being sought after nationally by many.

“Of course, last week we got notice that Amazon was no longer considering Greensboro,” he said. “The good news is that it is still considering North Carolina with a Raleigh location. So we’ll throw our full support behind Raleigh, doing anything we can to help them with that.”

One thing that can be said of current efforts is that area leaders and economic development officials have been setting their sites high. They’ve gone after the Toyota-Mazda plant, the new Amazon headquarters and, recently, they’ve shown interest in attracting Apple, which just announced it’s going to build a new employee center somewhere.

“As for Apple, we’re still waiting to determine how to best pursue that opportunity and we are in touch with the state as to how we are going to do that as well,” Christensen said.

At the GCEDA meeting, Christensen said that, a week after Guilford County got the bad news about the Toyota-Mazda plant, Greensboro Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President David Ramsey was at an auto convention in Detroit marketing the site to new prospects.

Cone Health CEO Terry Akin made comments that morning very similar to ones he made hours later at the chamber’s dinner.

“I just really think it’s important for us, in the face of what I know is disappointment, to remain positive and optimistic, which I generally am,” Akin said at the GCEDA meeting. “I am bullish on this region and I think we are poised with so many of the right ingredients coming together. I do not believe it’s a matter of if – I think it’s a question of when,” Akin said. “When you think about everything we’ve learned through the process, how we refined the site, what we’re now left with, there’s reason for optimism. So I wanted to say that in the face of what I know is at least, on its surface, a little bit – not a little bit – kind of a downer and a disappointment. But I think we have reason to be proud and enthusiastic and I certainly remain that way.”

Greensboro City Manager Jim Westmoreland said at that same morning meeting in Colfax that he was very impressed with the way everyone came together to try and get the automakers to choose this area. He said he’d never seen anything quite like it in his 25 years of involvement with economic development projects.

“I can say without hesitation that I’ve never seen the entire region and state and other partners come together like we did on this project,” Westmoreland said. “I think we know there’s different political affiliations of people and groups and agencies but this was all about what’s best for North Carolina. Everybody in the state, whether the governor or the leaders of the Senate and the House, the leaders in this room, the private partners – everybody remains all in and committed to it [the megasite], and I think everybody knows it’s not a matter of if we get a client but when we get a client. It’s gonna happen. In my time of being involved in this activity, I’ve never seen that level of effort and commitment.”

Darlene Leonard, the chair of the High Point Economic Development Corp. board of directors and chair of the GCEDA Leadership Group, said at the meeting, “We’re definitely in the national spotlight,” she said. “We didn’t get the prize but we’ve gotten a lot of attention.”

Christensen said that, typically, major plant locations such as the Toyota-Mazda project take place largely in private so, in many cases, it’s not known who was runner up.

“The client typically is not going to disclose who else was considered,” Christensen said. “And so the good news is this was pretty well out there in the press for the past six months, so our site has gotten a lot of press, which is great.”

He added, “We did probably five years worth of work in five months on that site, to the point where you can bring us a site plan and plug it in and we can have you up and turning dirt in almost no time. And that’s pretty significant.”