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Originally published: 2013-04-08 11:35:52
Last modified: 2013-04-08 11:35:51

Our View: NC 194 location no place to park business sites

Watauga County needs jobs. Our county is not only laboring beneath a crushing unemployment rate that finds nearly one of every 10 people without work, but a top-choice university combined with the natural magnetism of the High Country to lure, train and retain intelligent individuals means that we also have one of the most highly educated wait staffs in the state.

Yes, Watauga County needs jobs, and our county commissioners are not blind to this. Indeed, they are right in two important ways to suggest and pursue the development of a new business park to attract employers that will provide meaningful work. 

Intellectually, a study completed less than a year ago discovered an imperative need for "client ready" business sites if our county were to compete with our neighbors. Practically, we have seen the fruition of a local business park -- albeit one that has been full for decades.

Yet while the idea is correct, the decision to purchase 199 acres of land off N.C. 194 to develop such a park is wrong. That location, about three miles from New Market Centre, is poorly suited to fulfill the needs of a "client ready" business site.

We can understand why our county leaders were initially attracted to this parcel. 

At nearly 200 acres, this site would provide about two and one-half times more land than a previously suggested site -- the old Watauga High School. This amount of land offers not only the opportunity for expansion, something our current business park is incapable of, but also options for resale to developers or the development of green space.

And, certainly, the price is right. Although the property was once listed for nearly $3 million, the current offer of about $8,500 an acre seems to be a bargain.

Except that it's not. 

This land at any price is not a solid fit for our business park needs. At this location, there are numerous challenges that would not be found elsewhere in constructing the infrastructure and other needs necessary to sustain business development.

Road access to this site is a vital concern. Our narrow, winding mountain roads, such as those that lead to this site, make for pleasant pleasure driving, but are a death-knell for business needs. We have seen this in many parts of our county, and we have seen the expense of straightening and widening such roads -- an option that is probably not possible on most of N.C. 194, including this stretch of roadway.

In addition to roads already poorly suited to business needs is the presence of school traffic on this road. Already, residents experience frustrating congestion here multiple times per day. Incorporate business traffic into this and the result will move well beyond frustration -- a morning and afternoon commute could become a risky outing.

Water, sewer lines, natural gas, electricity and telecommunication needs are also challenges inherent to this site. 

Yes, these are challenges found in all rural building locations within our borders, but at this site, overcoming them could involve digging wells capable of supplying industrial water needs, tapping into Meat Camp Creek or possibly the completion of a proposed new water intake -- a project that is even now being met with obstacles -- and annexation with ensuing water lines running three miles from Boone. 

And that's just for the water.

A further concern with the choice of this location, and not a minor one, is the structure of the community already in place along N.C. 194. Homes, farms and small businesses have combined to form a breadth of High Country living that is antithetical to a business park.

It is not that our county commissioners were unaware of these concerns when they unanimously voted to purchase this property. The realization of poor road access and other challenges were brought forth by commissioners themselves.

But to overcome these challenges would require much more than "some work," as one commissioner suggested. It would require an outlay of capital that would not be necessary at other sites -- such as developing a parcel on U.S. 421.

More, the commissioners themselves presented strong reservations about pursuing a business park in this location. At least one member suggested they hurry the vote before he changed his mind yet again. That type of sentiment doesn't bode well with spending nearly $2 million of our money on land that will prove an unwise investment for a business park.

What does bode well is that the commissioners wisely built-in an addendum to the purchase. The agreement offers a five-month due diligence period in which the county can walk away from the deal without penalty if the site is found unsuitable for business park needs.

We suggest that such a revelation won't take five months. And we urgently suggest that our county leaders use that time to divest themselves from this location and choose more wisely in acquiring a business site that will readily and speedily lend itself to fulfilling the original mission of the project -- putting Watauga County to work.