The Guilford County commissioners were almost giddy with excitement – no, they were giddy with excitement – at their Thursday, April 5 meeting over the prospects of Publix Super Markets opening a distribution center in the county and bringing 1,000 jobs and $400 million in capital investment.
The commissioners let it be known in no uncertain terms that Publix, its jobs and its money are extremely welcome here and the board backed up those words with action by unanimously approving an incentives package that saves Publix 80 percent on its county property taxes for 10 years.
Commissioner Carolyn Coleman summed up the mood of the board regarding the Publix project. Even though the company hasn’t made an official announcement that it will choose Guilford County for the endeavor, hope and expectations are that Publix will open the proposed giant distribution center on Birch Creek Road near Old Burlington Road.
“We’re so excited, we can’t contain ourselves!” Coleman exclaimed at the meeting.
The supermarket chain, founded in 1930 in Winter Haven, Florida, has grown to become one of the 10 largest supermarket chains in the country. Last year, the store had $35 billion in sales, and it was clear at the April 5 meeting that the Guilford County commissioners want badly for Publix’s next expansion to happen right here in this county.
The company, which currently employs about 190,000 people, will pay an average salary of $42,000 a year to employees at the new distribution center if Publix builds it here. Several commissioners said they like the fact that Publix provides very good employee benefits and is also an excellent corporate citizen that backs charities and other community causes.
While the commissioners were all clearly elated at the possibility of so many badly needed jobs in eastern Guilford County, company representatives made it clear that Publix hasn’t made a decision yet. The earliest that decision will be made is August when the company’s board of directors meets. If Guilford County is chosen, it will be 2023 before the first jobs are filled and 2025 before they all are.
Jason Troller, a Publix executive, said the company was “taking its time” because this was such a major project for them. In fact, he said, it’s the largest single investment the supermarket chain has every made.
Commissioner Skip Alston made the motion to approve the incentives and other commissioners jumped in all at once to second it.
Alston recently visited a Publix distribution site in Georgia along with Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan, Greensboro City Councilmember Sharon Hightower and others.
The City of Greensboro and the State of North Carolina have also offered Publix incentives to locate in Guilford County.
“We had a great time there and it was very eye-opening,” Alston said.
He said he couldn’t have been more impressed with the facility he toured – nearly 2.1 million square feet across two giant warehouses – and he added that the technology behind the operations, as well as the professionalism of the employees, was inspiring. Alston also said the diversity of Publix’s workforce was impressive.
“If we can get something like that here in Guilford County, I think it will be a big blessing for all of us,” Alston said.
Alston added that Guilford County isn’t “giving them a dime of taxpayer money.” Instead, he said, the county is allowing Publix to keep a percentage of the property tax revenue increase from economic growth that otherwise wouldn’t occur. Alston said that, once the incentives deal expires, 100 percent of tax revenue from the appreciation in property value will go to the county and help prevent future tax increases.
Before the unanimous vote by the Board of Commissioners in favor of incentives, Alston said that every member of the board should back the move.
“I want those jobs to go to Guilford County residents,” Alston said, adding, “This is a no-brainer to me.”
He also pointed out to his fellow commissioners that a new distribution center in Guilford County could mean more Publix grocery stores down the line – which, he said, would bring even more jobs.
Like Alston, Commissioner Carlvena Foster said she was very excited about the diversity of the workforce. She said she had family in Atlanta and had shopped at Publix stores many times there and was always impressed with the diversity of the staff, both on the sales floor and in management positions.
Publix’s approach of the county for incentives was almost a textbook example of how it should be done. All the bases were covered before they got to the meeting. For instance, Publix knew to provide diversity numbers to commissioners. Every time any company comes to the board with an incentives request, the commissioners ask about the percentage of minority employees and the percentage in management. Some unprepared companies stand at the podium and say they don’t have the numbers – and that never goes well.
Coleman said at the April 5 meeting that she was impressed Publix had already provided those numbers to the board.
“I’m always interested in a company that comes to the county and we don’t have to say to them, ‘Give us your report on diversity,’ and we don’t have to monitor that every year because it’s obvious that you’re doing what you said you would do. So I’m excited about Publix for many reasons; there are far too many people in this area that need good jobs.”
Coleman, who’s from Savannah, Georgia, an area the chain serves, added that she’s very familiar with the stores.
Even the Republican commissioners – many of whom ran for office on an anti-incentives platform – had no problem voting in favor of the generous incentives for Publix.
Commissioner Jeff Phillips said that, with “very few exceptions,” he’s inclined to vote against incentives. He said it took time for him to get to a point where he could vote for incentives in this case. Phillips said the size and stature of this project, as well as the respect Publix commands, inclined him to grant this request. He said Publix is “one of the most respected companies in America if not the world” and called the project a “potential game changer.”
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Alan Branson, like Phillips, said he struggles with voting for incentives, but Branson said one major consideration for him was that the center would be in District 4 in eastern Guilford County where it will help small towns like McLeansville, Gibsonville, Whitsett and Julian.
Branson also praised Publix’s charitable efforts as well as its work with the Special Olympics.
Branson, who runs a trucking company, said the entire logistics industry will sit up and take notice if Publix opens its center here. The chairman said he hopes this project will get the attention of others looking to build distribution centers on the East Coast.
“I don’t think we market ourselves well enough with the by-pass that is currently under construction,” Branson said. “We have some of the best highways on the eastern seaboard right here in Greensboro and in Guilford County.”
“That being said, I’m not an incentives guy,” he said, adding that the county has to “play the game in today’s world.”
Branson also said Guilford County must make up for jobs lost through closings at Cone Mills and other companies that have shut down or reduced their workforces.
Even the two commissioners who weren’t able to make it to the meeting – Commissioners Kay Cashion and Justin Conrad – took the nearly unprecedented step of writing letters in support of approving the incentives. Like the comments from other commissioners, the letters were glowing endorsements of Publix.
At the meeting, Greensboro Chamber of Commerce President Brent Christensen said the proposed contract was performance based with the incentives dependent on Publix meeting its goals.
“The company knows that and it is part of what you all do as a public body to protect those dollars going forward,” Christensen said. “They live up to their end of the bargain before anything is granted back to the company.”
Troller said the company was confident it would be able to create and fill those jobs.
“We feel that the Greensboro area, the Guilford County area, does have the workforce we’re looking for to staff this facility,” he said.
Not everyone at the meeting was happy about Publix getting the incentives. Before the unanimous vote approving the request, George Hartzman, a local blogger who ran for mayor, weighed in. Hartzman often speaks at Greensboro City Council meetings but rarely does so at county commissioner meetings. At the April 5 meeting, he spoke against the incentives package.
Hartzman said this move used taxpayer dollars to line the pockets of companies and private citizens.
He also said Guilford County owns a great deal of land at the Guilford County Prison Farm near McLeansville and this project should go to that land.
“That would be amazing” Hartzman said. “That would be a good use of public property.”
Hartzman spoke for about 15 minutes but didn’t sway any commissioners, who all approved the move.
In the agreement that will now be signed with Guilford County if the company decides to locate here, Publix agrees to invest a minimum of $400 million, which includes the purchase of nine parcels of land totaling 342 acres. That land is owned by Greensboro developer Roy Carroll, who owns this newspaper.
Publix also agrees to create 1,000 new full-time jobs with average annual wages of at least $42,000 and to “pay substantial benefits to the new employees.” Those are outlined in the contract.
If the goals aren’t met, the incentive grant for that year will be reduced by a pro-rated percentage based on a formula in the contract.
Also, as part of the deal, Guilford County agrees to provide expedited track plan review, permitting and inspections at the standard fee charged by the Planning and Development Department.
Each year, Publix must deliver to Guilford County Manger Marty Lawing a letter certifying that the company has successfully completed all of its promised actions. Also, during the time the incentives are being granted, Publix must provide access to county officials and allow them to review the company’s workforce information. The contract states that, “Information attained during these visits shall remain under the possession of [Publix] and not leave the property unless specifically required by the Agreement.”