Four years after the explosion at the ConAgra plant in Garner, the town says demolition is nearly finished and the town will begin a hard sales push to market the site to other businesses.
June 9 marked the anniversary of the accidental natural gas explosion that killed three and injured 38 others.
The town also lost $55 million from its tax base, worth more than a quarter-million per year in revenue. The property was given by ConAgra to the town, along with a $2.5 million gift, when the company decided to shut down its Garner operation after the explosion. That gift will fund part of the new three-gym recreation center that is expected to anchor new development in downtown Garner.
About 85-90 percent of demolition work at the factory has been completed, economic development director Tony Beasley said. There remains some soil contamination to be cleaned up, but progress has been steady and Beasley said it could be November or December before the town is ready to begin actively marketing the site.
“It looks like all the cogs are beginning to line up. We want to do it right. Better to be prudent then to just be fast,” Beasley said.
As of now, Beasley said the town takes calls from interested parties, but has not put together any real active recruitment effort. The marketing effort will include a brownfield agreement and state-granted tax benefits that will delay the full benefit to Garner’s tax base.
Contamination breeds tax breaks
A brownfield site is one where the threat of environmental contamination hinders redevelopment. A 1997 law allows the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources to work with developers to put them back into use. In a brownfield agreement, the developer agrees to make the property suitable for re-use, while the department agrees to limit liability on contamination risk. Tax incentives come with the package. The idea: fix up industrial sites rather than build on untouched “greenfield” areas, minimizing the amount of land impacted.
In the case of the Garner site, ConAgra is working to de-contaminate the soil, but groundwater contamination issues remain for a developer to handle. Beasley said levels of widely used dry-cleaning chemical perchloroethylene (PERC) existed just above the state’s allowable limits on a portion of the site. The chemical, which sinks below the water table, is known to be difficult to clean up, and the groundwater on the site will remain unusable.
As the town looks for a developer, it knows the agreement – which is a state government issue – will offer state and local tax breaks of 90 percent in the first year. The tax breaks dwindle each of the next four years afterward. Those savings are meant to offset the cost of making the site usable again.
The town saved on demolition costs, paying $1. Materials taken from the site served as primary payment. According to Beasley the contractor said roughly 75 percent of the materials had been recycled.
An early-2012 report contracted by the town to craft a redevelopment strategy suggested the town target a high-wage industry that would build a facility equal to the investment of ConAgra. Biotech and pharmaceuticals constitute likely targets, and the town will undoubtedly sell easy access to I-40 and reasonable proximity to Research Triangle Park.
“That’s still where we think the best use would be, and that’s what we’re going to work hard to do,” Beasley said.
Currently the value of the primary tract of land bordered by I-40, Jones Sausage Road and East Garner Middle School is listed by Wake County at $2.58 million, plus $835,416 in building value.