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Members of the Watauga County Economic Development Commission have been looking for years for land that could hold a new business park — and they may now have it in this parcel off N.C. 194 North. Kellen Moore | Watauga Democrat.

Originally published: 2013-04-02 11:07:45
Last modified: 2013-04-03 09:36:51

County to buy 199 acres for biz park

Watauga County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to purchase a 199-acre property off N.C. 194 North to develop as a business park.

The county intends to buy the property, located about three miles from New Market Center, from Deborah Earp Greene for $1.7 million.

The agreement offers a five-month due diligence period in which the county may walk away without penalty if it determines the land is not suitable for its needs.

If all goes according to plan, what are now cow fields will transform into a bustling business hub within the next five, 10 or 15 years, commissioners said.

"I think this is a wise investment for the county," said Chairman Nathan Miller. "We always talk about jobs. The problem here is we don't have the land or space to encourage businesses that would employ large (numbers of) people. There's just not the space. This hopefully will be able to do that once we make it available -- and it will require some work."

Developing a commercial park has been a priority of the Watauga County Economic Development Commission for years. The current industrial park, developed in the 1980s off U.S. 421 in Boone, has been full for decades.

In 2012, the EDC worked with InSite Consulting of Greer, S.C., to develop a marketing plan for Watauga County. InSite representatives said it was imperative for the county to create "client-ready" business sites with road access, water and sewer lines, natural gas, electricity and telecommunications if it wanted to attract companies.

The consultants suggested that such a site might be a good fit for light manufacturing such as sporting goods, medical instruments or biotechnology -- or similar industries that don't need much space, rely on highly educated individuals and have minimal environmental impacts.

In October 2012, the EDC proposed designating the 74-acre former Watauga High School property for a business park, but commissioners urged the board to look elsewhere.

Since February, the Board of Commissioners has met at least three times in closed session to discuss economic development. After closed session at Tuesday's meeting, the board returned to open session to vote on the land deal.

Miller said he, County Manager Deron Geouque, EDC Director Joe Furman and EDC Chairman Keith Honeycutt negotiated with the owner, who originally listed the property for $3 million. The seller is not the same Deborah Greene as the former Board of Education candidate.

The county will immediately pay $50,000 in earnest money, which will be returned if the county withdraws during the due diligence period. If the deal closes, the $1.7 million will come from the county's unrestricted fund balance.

The county will soon issue a request for quotes from companies interested in performing the necessary due diligence services.

Miller said the location was not as desirable as some others considered, including properties along U.S. 421, but that the price of about $8,500 per acre was excellent.

Vice Chairman David Blust questioned whether a recent appraisal had been conducted and whether a new one should be done. Miller said the county had appraised the land around $1.9 million in 2009 but noted that there weren't many comparable properties.

"We're talking about possibly buying some land where we don't know what the appraised value is," Blust said.

Commissioner Billy Kennedy said he also had some concerns about the road access but also believed that this would be the county's best option on a property of this size.

"I think it's a great deal for a long-term project, and if in the five months due diligence we find it doesn't work, we need to back out of it," Kennedy said. "We need to make sure that this doesn't take away from essential county services that our residents need and depend on."

Commissioner John Welch said he had gone "back and forth on this" and joked that the board ought to vote before he changed his mind again.

"This is a big chunk of change," Welch said. "We have some people hurting in the county immediately; this is more of a long-range deal."

Commissioners agreed Tuesday that the property was at least worth considering.

"I don't think it ever hurts to look at a situation that can create jobs -- jobs and tax base," Commissioner Perry Yates said.

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