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City Council discusses development of business center

Options for incremental development of infrastructure for the Albemarle Business Center, as well as whether the board should commit to begin these at this time, led to a lengthy discussion by City Council members at Monday’s meeting. It ended with a split vote.

The business center is off U.S. Highway 52 South near Trinity Place.

“You have options for phasing in of corporate center development,” said City Manager Michael Ferris, referencing the development of a similar facility in Monroe, which four council members recently visited.

“There is a considerable amount of infrastructure that will need to be performed by city staff, and possibly along with some contractors,” Ferris said. “And no matter what happens, we need to get water and sewer to the site, so if council is ready, we can begin some of that in-house work.

“And if not,” he continued, “that’s fine…but keep in mind that when the site is ready, that just means we’ve added more time before we can get to the actual site itself.”

“So you’re saying that staff will be asking for some flexibility to work it into their schedules as they are able?” asked Mayor Ronnie Michael, to which Ferris replied in the affirmative.

“The plans from our engineer are in place, so we are talking about water and sewer and new electric circuit installation by in-house forces,” Ferris said.

Councilman Chris Bramlett expressed concern that immediately committing resources to the Business Center could be detrimental to other planned and ongoing projects, particularly Pfeiffer University’s growth in the downtown area.

“I think we’ve got to look at this in terms of almost competing alternatives, and I don’t like that,” he said. “According to the capital improvement plan, the cost to develop that property is right at $14 million. I’m very concerned that if we even start it right now, we’re committing a whole bunch of money, even if it’s only a third or half of that, and that’s going to take away our capacity to react quickly to this other opportunity — developing an academic community — so I’d like to see us hold off on committing anything to that project until we’ve been able to interface it with what we see going on in downtown Albemarle.”

Bramlett also expressed concern over the fact that the Monroe site, while “very impressive,” has taken 24 years to completely develop, “in an area that is growing much faster than we are.”

“We have three industrial parks in Stanly County sitting idle,” he said, “one to the north of us on U.S. 52, one in Richfield, and the one at the airport. None of those three has a single entity in it.”
Economic Development Director Mark Donham, who was employed in Monroe when the business center facility there started, spoke of the incremental development at that park, which has seen a number of industries that originally located there expand their facilities and workforce.

“Not only are companies locating and staying there, but it (the park) is retaining industry that could move somewhere else,” he said.

Donham also believes going forward with development of the Albemarle center could be a timely move.

“I believe we’re going to see some extended growth here over the next couple years or so,” he said.

“What do you base that on?” Councilman Bill Aldridge said.

“I just think there’s a lot more activity, a lot more things that are taking place,” said Donham, noting many governmental regulations that had slowed growth have been reduced recently, “and that’s allowing businesses to grow more quickly and faster.”

Donham also noted the constant ebb and flow of the economy as a favorable factor in moving ahead with preparing the Albemarle facility.

“In all economies, you have ups and downs,” he said, “but you need to be prepared for when you get the ups, because if you’re not, you lose that opportunity.”

Councilwoman Shirley Lowder followed with a motion, seconded by Hall, that council allow city staff flexibility to begin studies and plans on expansion of infrastructure into the Albemarle Business Center property.

Prior to the vote, Bramlett said, “I still think we need to know these other things we’ve talked about. How can we develop part of the park as well as work on things such as our academic village (Pfeiffer)? Then we can talk about how far we need to go to take the first lap into the corporate center.
“I want us to develop that corporate center,” added Bramlett. “I’d feel terrible if people here thought I did not want to do that, but I’m trying to put it in perspective as to what the opportunities are, realistically, in terms of recruiting business and in terms of the downtown (Pfeiffer) project that we know is a sure thing.”

“Remember,” added Michael, “nothing happens until we get electricity, water and sewer to the site.”

“I think council is doing all we can to phase this thing in,” Councilman Chris Whitley said. “As we’ve heard, it takes these things (business centers) 20 to 30 years to fill up.”

“We are building for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, probably,” Michael said.

“I think Dr. Bramlett’s point is, ‘what amount does Pfeiffer need?’ ” Councilwoman Martha Hughes said.

She said further discussion on the matter would take place at a strategic planning session Tuesday.

“What are we going to do? Are we going with the Pfeiffer downtown project, or are we going with the business center? Can we do both?” she asked.

“It’s not an either/or,” replied Michael. “We are going to have to do both if we are going to improve the future and have more jobs for our children in the future.”

“I agree wholeheartedly,” said Aldridge, “and as someone said, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. And right now, our bird in the hand is right down the street with the Pfeiffer project.”

“Everybody here wants both,” added Hughes. “It’s a matter of prioritizing staff, money and time.”

Upon vote, the measure passed 5-2, with Bramlett and Hughes opposed.

Michael said further discussion on upcoming steps will take place at the council’s planning session Tuesday, pending cost figures from the city’s engineer.