The Guilford County Prison Farm is becoming the Rodney Dangerfield of economic development sites – it gets no respect.
Once a major focus of attention for large projects, and the proposed site for everything from a giant data center farm to a Christian-themed amusement park, these days the 806 acres of land in eastern Guilford County (as well as a sliver of western Alamance County) never seems to even be mentioned in passing by economic development officials.
Now all the talk is about the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite in Randolph County just south of Guilford County and the aviation megasite being developed at Piedmont Triad International Airport.
Until about five years ago, the Prison Farm was exactly that – a farm where prisoners worked and were held. The Guilford County Sheriff’s Department at times kept up to 120 inmates at the farm and attempted to teach them trades while they were there.
In 2013, the now infamous Project Haystack – a planned giant data center farm – was proposed for the site, but that project never became a reality and the estimated $5 billion in investment and 5,000 new jobs never materialized. Now, Guilford County just rents most of the Prison Farm land to farmers.
Guilford County Commissioner Hank Henning said he believes the limitations of the Prison Farm curtailed its prospects for development.
“We took a hard look at it for different things,” Henning said. “But there was no simple way to get water and sewer out there; it’s just prohibitive. It’s in the middle of nowhere and the road infrastructure is not anywhere close to what it needs to be.”
Henning added that those and other limitations mean the site is a very long way from shovel-ready, which, he added, is what many prospects want these days.
Greensboro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Brent Christensen, who also helps orchestrate the county’s economic development efforts, said there are some companies that might find the Prison Farm attractive someday.
He said a data center project might be a good fit for the area since data centers aren’t labor intensive. The bad thing about that is that it wouldn’t bring many jobs but the good thing is that the roads wouldn’t need a major upgrade, as they would to handle, say, a large distribution center.
He said one positive factor is that it’s a very large swath of land owned by one entity and another is that it has excellent access to the power grid.
Christensen added that the site would need a lot of work before becoming home to a major tenant.
“I think there’s some heavy lifting that would need to be done to make it a viable site, even for a data center,” Christensen said.
He said that “creative” strategies could perhaps be employed to make it a good location for a data park, telecommunications companies or similar operations.