08/05/13 — Officials: County won't lose Rural Center incentive grants

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Officials: County won't lose Rural Center incentive grants

By Steve Herring
Published in News on August 5, 2013 1:46 PM

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A worker bales hay at ACX Pacific Northwest, an animal feed company now housed in the former Carolina Tobacco Warehouse on Jeffreys Lane. Wayne County took advantage of a $340,000 Building Reuse Grant from the North Carolina Rural Center to help the company invest in the project.

Wayne County has been assured that it will still receive $425,000 in economic-incentive grants promised by the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center despite the state's freezing of the Center's funding.

Nor is the closing of the state's Biofuels Center expected to have any impact on the county even though its employees have been advising the county on a possible project here.

However, the picture is not as clear in Fremont, where work is nearing completion on a $30,000 project in which the town is counting on $15,000 in Rural Center funding. The cuts could also affect the North Carolina Small Town Economic Prosperity Program (NC STEP) that the town is involved in.

The state cut off funding for the Rural Center last month in the wake of an audit critical of the agency. According to reports, the action prevents the Rural Center from using more than $100 million in state money -- more than two-thirds of which has been earmarked for grants tied to job creation.

"We haven't heard anything definite yet (about funding)," Fremont Town Administrator Kerry McDuffie said.

McDuffie said he had heard rumors that the Rural Center funds could be moved to the state Department of Commerce.

He said he would be surprised if the state were to pull back money that had been promised and that has already been committed by the towns and counties that have received the grants.

Fremont has committed its promised $15,000 grant for work at the town's wastewater treatment lagoon.

"We need to pay (for the project), and we don't know where the money will come from," he said. If the money is pulled, it could put towns and counties in a "bad" situation, McDuffie said.

The Rural Center's funding problems could affect Fremont's overall efforts to boost economic development. NC STEP allocates $25,000 for planning projects to develop economic prosperity in rural communities and then grants $100,000 of seed money for project implementation once the project plan is approved by the Rural Center.

Oliver Bass, chief planner with the Department of Commerce's Division of Community Assistance, and on loan to the Rural Center, has been helping Fremont to work with the program.

During the town's July STEP meeting, Bass was asked if he would be able to continue to attend the meetings. Bass said he could, but that the town would have to pay for his time and travel.

"Whether we get the $100,000 or not, I think we should finish out the program because it is useful to us anyway," Mayor Darron Flowers said at the meeting.

Flowers asked those involved if they would continue to meet if the funding didn't come through. They said that they would.

McDuffie said the town has already used a "good portion" of the $25,000.

Wayne County has two ongoing projects benefiting from Rural Center grants.

In January, Balfour Beatty Rail on Dewey Street and ACX Pacific Northwest just off U.S. 117 South received Rural Center funding.

Balfour Beatty Rail was awarded an $85,000 Rural Center Occupied Building Grant for its Goldsboro Traction Power Group and ACX Pacific Northwest a $340,000 Rural Center Building Reuse Grant.

Those grants have not yet been funded.

"We have been told that those funds are safe and will be dispersed at the time frame spelled out in the grant agreements," said Joanna Helms, Wayne County Development Alliance president. "Regarding the Rural Center, we have had a very close association with that organization. They have provided multiple grants to Wayne County industries that have helped to create numerous jobs and investment.

"One example is the AT&T Technical Support Center, which now employs 350 people. I can verify that all the jobs and investments which were proposed by companies in Wayne County that received grants from the Rural Center have been created."

Balfour Beatty Rail, which manufactures electrical components for the public transit industry, including light rail and streetcars, is planning a $1 million expansion that will add 29 new jobs.

The $1 million includes $600,000 for renovations and $450,000 for new equipment.

Wayne County will provide a $2,125 match for the Rural Center grant, as will Goldsboro.

ACX Pacific Northwest, an animal feed company, plans to create 38 jobs with an initial investment of $4.7 million over the next three years as it renovates and leases the former 158,400-square-foot Carolina Tobacco Warehouse on Jeffreys Lane.

The county had been asked for a $17,000 match for the Rural Center grant. The city was not asked for a match since the property is outside the city limits.

Mrs. Helms said the Biofuels Center had a limited supportive relationship with the county.

"They were a player in the Chemtex project, which Wayne was a consideration for, but is now proposed for Sampson County," she said. "We are in talks with them now regarding another project for Wayne County.

"They are assisting in an advisory capacity, helping us to decipher the complicated world of turning waste to energy. We are in talks with the Biofuels Center regarding another project, basically trying to determine if it would be a good fit for Wayne County. The project will not be in jeopardy when the Center closes. We'll just have to go elsewhere to find the expertise, and I don't know where that will be yet."