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MEGASITES
From Site Selection magazine, January 2023
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‘PROOF IS IN THE OUTCOMES’

Site Selectors on Megasite Development

MEGASITES
by Adam Bruns
S

ince the Site Selectors Guild produced research in May 2022 projecting that megaprojects of $1 billion or more would be on the rise, I figured: Who better to turn to for business intelligence and recommendations about the megasites being developed to attract those blockbusters?

Half a dozen members of that experienced club of location consultants responded to five questions. Had they been involved in siting projects on extra-large sites?

All six consultants said, “Yes.” One has worked three of them — two in the electric vehicle arena and one in the wine and spirits industry. “I’m currently working on a new auto plant project and I worked on one of the battery plants,” says another. “We have looked at all the available megasites in the U.S. I’m also working with Hyundai at their megasite in Savannah.”

Another site selector had “visited scores of megasites across the country for numerous manufacturing projects in the last two years.” Yet another noted, “Good, truly shovel-ready mega sites are difficult to find. There’s typically a missing element, whether it’s utility infrastructure, rail access, adequate workforce, etc.”

Here is a summary of the consultants’ responses to the other questions.

In your work consulting for corporate end-users on large projects, what are the chief requirements when it comes to site development, and how have those requirements evolved in recent years?

  • “Labor and infrastructure availability, speed to market, proximity to customers and suppliers.”
  • “Fully serviced, ready-to-go sites are strongly preferred. Requirements have not appreciably changed,” but some have: “Closer proximity to labor pools and green energy/sustainability sites are preferred.”
  • “Extensive offsite infrastructure improvements; accelerated permitting — process and facility related; site development capabilities/costs.”
  • “Unencumbered acreage with no wetlands, floodplains, etc. Large utility infrastructure with the ever-increasing need for large electric infrastructure. Logistics infrastructure including rail, water, and/or highway. The need for robust electric infrastructure is one major need that has increased in importance over the past 24 months.”
  • “Scheduling gets faster and faster as markets change much faster and the industries need to adapt. Permitting is a big topic. Wetlands on sites, streams, endangered species, cultural resources — all could be impacting a site development schedule. Also renewables get more important — availability, costs, new technologies in the energy sector. Quality of life around a site gets also more important recently.”

Name the top three megasite programs you’ve encountered.

  • “Duke Energy Power Sites.”
  • “Oregon, Ohio, Xcel Energy.”
  • “TVA’s megasite program (we weren’t involved). They have put factories on most of those sites (if not all). Proof is in the outcomes.”
  • “Duke Energy Site Readiness Program, TVA.”
  • “South Carolina, Kentucky.”

Not every large piece of land is destined for megasite status. Describe the criteria you use in counseling communities about whether to develop a megasite or go another route.

  • “Many communities call their sites ‘megasite.’ A megasite should be at least 1,500 acres or larger and offer at least 700 acres of a fully useable area. There are not many real megasites available at the moment. For an auto plant, for example, you need a 600- to 700-acre pad. Many so called megasites are not able to provide that due to streams, grading issues and utilities restrictions.”
  • “Developing a range of fully serviced sites — both stand-alone and industrial parks — should be the norm.”
  • “Communities must have the talent, operating cost, risk and other critical parameters to make a megasite make sense.”

Name the chief obstacles to megasite development you’ve encountered and solutions you’ve proposed to overcome them.

  • “NIMBYism, lack of funding.”
  • “Electric power redundancy. Got a state infrastructure grant.”
  • “Costs of site control, costs of technical studies, costs of clearing/grubbing a pad area, etc. These could be funded by state/local EDOs or grants.”
  • “Definitely wetlands and streams — working with the Corps of Engineers to see which can be mitigated and how long it takes.”
  • “Development costs — onsite and offsite; permitting. SOLUTIONS: State grants for development costs; federal and state congressional support for permitting.”

Long Journey to the Promised Land: One Megasite’s Megastory

In late 2022 the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance (BCEDA) released a detailed account of the journey of a 3,000-acre megasite that began in 2009 and concluded last year with the landing of a $2.5 billion, 1,000-job integrated aluminum mill investment Novelis announced last May. Construction began in October. What follows are adapted and educational highlights from the 12-page case study. (Full disclosure: The Alliance ran a full advertising campaign for the South Alabama Megasite in multiple issues of Site Selection.)

Tourism has historically driven the Baldwin County economy. Baldwin County has seen significant population growth as well, ranking as the 7th fastest-growing metro area in the U.S. in the 2020 Census.

Recognizing the consistent population growth and the dependency on tourism, in the mid-2000s Baldwin County leadership identified large-scale industrial recruitment/ development as the primary element that could be infused to help build a resilient economy. The automotive, advanced manufacturing, and aerospace industries were identified as the primary target sectors that would have the highest impact on the community.

These target industries were found to have essential requirements regarding site specifications, requiring hundreds, if not thousands, of acres to construct a production facility, offer space for suppliers and provide ample room for future expansion. Significant infrastructure was also needed for these large-scale users, including four-lane highway access, excess utility capacity, proximity to railroad infrastructure and direct interstate access. Baldwin County found that they could meet all of these site requirements for a prospective user.

During evaluations on a property-identification program in 2009, CSX Transportation identified several tracts of land in north Baldwin County that had the potential for large-scale industrial development. The property was selected for its unique geographic position along the rail line, interstate frontage, and potential for significant utility usage. Fortunately, Baldwin County’s leadership saw the vision of what could be at this site and the impact it would provide to generations of residents of Baldwin County, and the South Alabama Mega Site was born. After careful evaluation and ROI analysis, the property was taken under purchase option by the Baldwin County Commission.

In 2011, McCallum Sweeney designated the South Alabama Mega Site as a certified “mega site,” making the site one of the largest of its kind in the country. Following this due diligence and certification process, the property was ultimately purchased by the Baldwin County Commission for $30 million in 2012. Though purchasing the South Alabama Mega Site was met with some opposition from outside stakeholders, the leadership remained committed to the vision and expected return from their investment.

After several missed opportunities and continued feedback from consultants and critical decision-makers, BCEDA and county leadership realized a need to invest further in site development, infrastructure, and workforce development. The Alabama Legislature introduced the Growing Alabama Tax Credit in 2015 to allow corporate entities in the State of Alabama to receive income tax credits in exchange for funds allocated toward site enhancement and investment. Over several years, BCEDA worked to procure over $13 million in funds from the program in conjunction with partners like Alabama Power, CSX and Regions Bank to invest in infrastructure that put the South Alabama Mega Site in a more marketable position. The funds were used to construct a 1.5 million-sq.-ft. building pad and on-site rail spur, eliminating significant up-front development costs and approximately nine to 12 months’ worth of time of site construction for future site tenants.

Megasites-NM-bottom

Photo-rendering composite of Novelis project courtesy of Novelis and BCEDA

In 2022, the Baldwin County Public School System announced plans to construct the State of Alabama’s first full-time career-tech high school, Baldwin Preparatory Academy (BPA). This $70 million facility will open in Fall 2024 and offer students in any Baldwin County feeder pattern the ability to jumpstart their careers.

2022: The Year of Goldeneye

Project Goldeneye came to Baldwin County in the Spring 2022, outlining plans to build a large-scale aluminum production plant that would create hundreds of jobs and billions in capital investment. The BCEDA worked with two reputable site selection firms to court the project to the South Alabama Mega Site. The project selected the site as a finalist due to its site and infrastructure preparedness, its overall ability to meet a short development timeline, and the county’s attractiveness from a talent and workforce perspective.

After trips to existing facilities and meetings with corporate leadership, it was apparent to the Baldwin County team that Project Goldeneye was the right fit for the community and the site. On May 11, 2022, Project Goldeneye, or Novelis, announced their decision to build their multi-billion-dollar facility at the South Alabama Mega Site.

Without the proactive investment in site readiness, Novelis would not have been able to meet its aggressive construction and production schedules. Baldwin County also demonstrated the ability to support Novelis’ employment ramp-up and long-term talent pipeline through synchronized partnerships and workforce development assets developed over years of coordination.

The proactive purchase of the South Alabama Mega Site posed many challenges from a political standpoint to leaders in the community. Fortunately, the Baldwin County economic development team stayed the course. The persistence paid off in finding what would be the most significant economic development project that Baldwin County has ever seen.

Adam Bruns
Editor in Chief of Site Selection magazine

Adam Bruns

Adam Bruns is editor in chief and head of publications for Site Selection, and before that has served as managing editor beginning in February 2002. In the course of reporting hundreds of stories for Site Selection, Adam has visited companies and communities around the globe. A St. Louis native who grew up in the Kansas City suburbs, Adam is a 1986 alumnus of Knox College, and resided in Chicago; Midcoast Maine; Savannah, Georgia; and Lexington, Kentucky, before settling in the Greater Atlanta community of Peachtree Corners, where he lives with his wife and daughter.

     



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