Buncombe County commissioners unanimously approved offering an undisclosed company $18.38 million in economic incentives May 14.
The county agreed to spend $15.7 million on land acquisition and facility construction, and give the mystery company an additional $2.68 million in cash grants.
In exchange, the company — referred to as "Project X" in documents and discussions — would invest about $126.7 million into the local facility and create 52 new jobs, paying an average wage of $40,000 per year. In addition, the company would agree to continue employing an undisclosed number of current local workers; the "total amount of jobs impacted would be more than 760 positions," according to one of the resolutions passed by commissioners.
The resolution also states that Project X informed the county that if it doesn't provide the requested incentives, it wouldn't make the proposed new investments and would even consider relocating its existing facility "outside of Buncombe County, and thereby cause a substantial number of high paying jobs to be lost."
The complicated pact would also involve a land and facility swap. No locations for the projects are specified in the resolutions, or were disclosed at the meeting.
Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton said that in the long term, the government will see a big return on its investment in the form of increased economic activity and tax revenue. For every $1 the county invests in the company, it will receive $32 back, he estimates.
However, the lack of transparency emerged as a major point of contention during a public hearing on the matter. Only a few local residents took the podium, but they all expressed skepticism.
Leslee Kulba, a columnist and reporter for The Tribune Papers, which publishes the Asheville Tribune, asserted that the deal amounted to "corporate welfare."
And Candler resident Jerry Rice compared commissioners' endorsement to citizens being forced to marry someone they haven't met yet or buy a house they haven't seen. "The taxpayers should not have a public hearing that takes place on Project X … without knowing what they're getting," he told the commissioners. "If you don't want to reveal the name of the company, then at least the property — because there's all kinds of things that you might not have considered. … You are all not geniuses."
With so many details yet to be announced, Rice also questioned the legality of the proceedings.
In response, County Manager Wanda Greene sought to assure Rice and commissioners that they were on solid ground: "It is absolutely legal to be able to vote on these measures," she said.
"We really aren't trying to hide anything," she added, reporting that the company insisted on secrecy until the final details are hammered out. "When a company says, 'You can't say,' we can't say. Or else they'll take their jobs and investment elsewhere."
Meanwhile, commissioners strongly endorsed the measure in their comments.
Commissioner Joe Belcher, a Republican, said he thinks the deal "is a good investment" for taxpayers, declaring: "I believe it's a game changer for the future of this county. I'm extremely excited."
And Commissioner Ellen Frost, a Democrat, noted that the measure has strong bipartisan agreement.
"We may come at this from different lifestyles, values and political parties," she said, "but we're all working together to improve the lives of the citizens in Buncombe County."
The city of Asheville is also negotiating with the company. At press time, no details of its dealings had been released.
— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or firstname.lastname@example.org.