At their first meeting of 2014, Buncombe County Commissioners unanimously agreed to give $1.12 million in cash grants to Jacob Holm Industries to help it expand local operations.
In exchange for the county money, the company agreed Jan. 7 to invest $45.93 million to expand its Candler facility and hire 66 new full-time workers at an average annual wage of $46,258 per year. That’s significantly more than the average annual wage in Buncombe County, which is about $36,348 per year, noted Planning Director John Creighton. He also reported that by 2019, he estimates that Jacob Holm’s investment will generate about $4.5 million in local tax revenue, more than paying back the county incentive. Overall, the company’s expansion will generate about $30 million for the local economy in that time period as the investment and job impact “ripples” through the area, he said.
Based in Switzerland, Jacob Holm Industries produces nonwoven fabrics, bonding fibers together using high-pressure water jets, said Jeff Sellers, vice president of operations. The fabrics are then used in a variety of hygiene and packaging products such as baby wipes, he said. The company opened its Candler plant at 1265 Sand Hill Road in 2005 and currently employs about 82 workers there.
“We’re excited to be in Western North Carolina and we’ll be around for a long time,” said Sellers.
Commissioner David King, who represents the Candler area on the board, celebrated the deal. “I think this is wonderful. The return on this for Jacob Holm and Buncombe County is a great thing,” he said. “As a representative of District 3, we’re very excited about the expansion out there. It’s a beautiful facility that adds a great deal to our community.”
The company hopes to start new construction at the existing Sand Hill site this April, said Sellers.
In another spending decision, commissioners unanimously decided to allocate $213,726 to hire 17 new county workers at the Health and Human Services Department. The employees are needed to administer NC FAST, a new state program developed to determine eligibility for all public assistance programs, said Buncombe County Public Assistance Director Jim Holland.
“It’s a transformational change,” said Holland. However, implementing the program presents some “significant challenges” as employees must enter additional data, he said.
The program was created in part to comply with aspects of the Affordable Care Act, which requires a centralized access point for applying for benefits, Holland reported. In addition to the county money, the federal government will provide another $213,726 to help fund the new hires, he noted. The total funding will pay their salaries and benefits for five months, he said.
Without the new hires, Holland worried that the county could entail penalties for exceeding mandated time standards and create undue delays for beneficiaries. “We believe that we’re very lean and very efficient,” he said.
Those in need of public assistance “are the most vulnerable,” said Commissioner Ellen Frost. “And it’s incumbent on us to do whatever we need to do to make their lives a little bit better.”
Before voting in support, Commissioner Mike Fryar asked Holland to consider downsizing the department in the future when the NC Fast program is better established and as economic conditions continue to improve.
“From what I understand, this NC FAST deal has pretty much been a disaster to put together,” Fryar asserted.
Holland responded by saying he’d continuously monitor staffing needs, noting: “We don’t want to be overstaffed.” But for the time being, King added: “As a county, I think we rise to meet the challenge, and I think that’s what we’re doing.”
Who’s got the power
In other business, Commissioners unanimously approved an update to the county’s zoning ordinance that adds regulations on public utility stations and renewable energy facilities that cover more than two acres.
The only person to speak during a public hearing on the matter was Mary Standaert, a Montreat resident. She urged approval, noting that the county drafted the rules in response to a failed effort by a New Mexico developer last year to install solar panels on 200 acres at the Ridgecrest Conference Center. The scale of that proposed solar farm had many neighbors up in arms about possible negative effects to the land and its scenic views. “Without this enactment a Ridgcrest-type development could happen tomorrow,” Standaert cautioned.
In the wake of that proposal, the county “received a number of requests to define utilities” and put safeguards in place, said Josh O’Conner, county zoning administrator. The new rules require buffers and other protections for residential neighborhoods and environmentally sensitive areas, he reported.
Commissioner Brownie Newman, who works at FLS Energy, a local solar development company, praised the move as “a good step forward.” He added: “I think the standards are common sense standards.”
Before the vote, Newman mentioned his employer and said he had consulted the county attorney about whether his position constituted a conflict of interest. “Because the policy applies broadly” and there’s no direct financial gain to Newman or FLS Energy associated with the rules, there is no conflict of interest impairing his vote, he said.
O’Conner noted that Buncombe is the first mountain county to pass such rules governing solar farms. And Board Chair David Gantt praised the zoning changes as forward-thinking.
“The hard part of this job is to look a head, instead of be reactive to everything,” he said, adding that the county “dodged a bullet” with the Ridgcrest proposal.