'Real Catch-22': SP Corporate Park Struggles for Support
The ghost of Corneal Science continues to haunt the Southern Pines Corporate Park.
When the ocular pharmaceutical company vanished without a trace almost five years ago — employees arrived at work one day only to find the building dark and everyone gone — the grant funding that would have finished the park’s infrastructure disappeared as well.
The funding had been based on new job creation at Corneal’s proposed eyedrop manufacturing plant in the park.
“We’ve had a real Catch-22 situation at the corporate park ever since,” Southern Pines Town Council member Mike Fields said. “It’s difficult to attract companies without the proper infrastructure in place, but we need to recruit a company to be eligible for grants that would provide the funding to help finish the infrastructure.”
The issue resurfaced at the council’s annual retreat earlier this month. Bob Baillie, owner of RAB Investments LLC in Aberdeen, the park’s developer, asked the town in a March 16 letter to Mayor David McNeill “to actively participate in order to aid us in this development.”
Baillie noted in the letter that RAB Investments had pumped $3.2 million into the project, while grants had added $1.2 million.
“That’s more than $4 million in development with limited success attracting businesses,” he said.
Baillie said an estimated $1.5 million is needed to upgrade a sewer pump station at the north end of the park and to pave the entire length of Air Tool Drive, including curbs and gutters.
“We would like to request that the town applied (sic) for grant money or other sources to be used to pay for these improvements,” he said in the letter. “Based on the number of lots available, the town should see approximately $400,000 a year (in tax revenue) from development of these lots.”
Town Manager Reagan Parsons said that as much as he would like to see the infrastructure completed, he could not recommend “that we do it at public expense.”
“Corneal Science ended up going belly-up and leaving town. That left Mr. Baillie holding the bag in regards to finishing the work,” Parsons said. “The bottom line is there has to be some company guaranteeing jobs to move the grant process forward.
“Lacking that, it’s going to sit there as it is for quite some time.”
In memo submitted to Parsons the day before the retreat, funding administrator Sharon McDuffie of Hobbs Upchurch & Associates said that she had researched the possibility of securing federal grant funding and found that it was also based on new job creation.
“EDA grant awards range from $500,000 to $2 million,” McDuffie noted in the memo.
She added that the N.C. Department of Commerce and N.C. Rural Economic Development Center “are both willing to consider new (grant) applications from the Town of Southern Pines should a potential project develop.”
Pat Corso, executive director of Moore County Partners in Progress, said local officials need to figure out a way “to get over the hump.”
“The corporate park is a very important asset in the county,” Corso said. “The challenge is when you show the park, it’s unfinished. Clients looking at the park want it to be finished.”
Corso lauded Baillie for investing in a project that is designed to attract new companies and create new jobs.
“He has spent a lot of money, so we’re going to do all we can to help Bob bring that park to life,” Corso said. “But we have to use alternative resources to cast a wider net to find the right client that will trigger our ability to get the grants to finish the infrastructure.”
Fields and his fellow council members hope that Corso fulfills that pledge.
“We hope that Partners in Progress will keep pushing the corporate park as a top priority in our collective effort to attract new jobs to Moore County,” Fields said.
Corneal Science announced in January 2006 that it was moving its manufacturing operations from Mitchell, S.D., to Moore County, and expected to employ 70 to 100 people as it expanded over the next few years.
But Corneal continued to make its eyedrops in South Dakota and package them in leased space in Southern Pines.
Matters worsened in early 2007 after Corneal accepted a larger order from Eckerd. Corneal made the product to fill the order, but by then Eckerd was merging with Rite Aid Corp.
Corneal had to sit on its product all summer while Rite Aid and Eckerd worked out the details of the merger. It wasn’t making any money and couldn’t pay its bills.
Eventually, Corneal simply closed up shop.
Contact Ted M. Natt Jr. at (910) 693-2474 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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