Unison Engine Components has been in Asheville for 59 years. Now owned by corporate giant General Electric, the jet-parts manufacturer is in the midst of a $28.5 million expansion, adding 200 jobs to the company’s Sweeten Creek Road plant. Most of the jobs will start at $16 an hour and will include extensive benefits.
They’ll do this with the help of $1.4 million in taxpayer dollars paid to Unison, as the Buncombe County commissioners approved an incentive grant for the company at their June 17 meeting on a 4-0 vote (Vice Chair David Gantt was absent). The cash grant will be paid over five years—provided that Unison actually completes the expansion as planned.
Both Chairman Nathan Ramsey and Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton praised the company as “one of our outstanding local employers.”
Unison, said Creighton, had informed him a year-and-a-half ago, when the company began planning for the expansion, that it would either be in Asheville or outside the state.
“We finally convinced them that Buncombe was the best place to do this expansion,” said Creighton.
Representing the company, Controller Jon Bellows said: “This will allow us to pursue some really significant growth. We sincerely appreciate working together with you and the whole of Western North Carolina.”
Expansions such as this, said Bellows, “only come along every 20 to 30 years. If it doesn’t come to Asheville, it will go somewhere else.” And despite problems in the aircraft industry, he noted, “as fuel prices go up, there becomes more and more of an incentive to use the new technology. We manufacture parts that are on almost every jet.”
This is the third incentive approved by the Board of Commissioners this year. Earlier this month, the board awarded BorgWarner, a Michigan-based auto-parts manufacturer, $1 million to help expand its West Asheville plant. In February, the commissioners waived $29,000 in taxes for Custom Packaging Inc., a box manufacturer based in Arden.
Commissioner David Young also praised the deal, thanking Unison.
But Leicester resident Alan Ditmore wasn’t quite so impressed.
“If the tax savings [from not giving out incentives] were pooled and that was passed on to the taxpayer, then more jobs would be created than [would be lost by not doing the expansions], and the after-tax pay of everyone would increase,” Ditmore said.
Enka resident Jerry Rice, meanwhile, said that if workers from other counties would be filling some of those jobs, the board should encourage those counties to help with the incentive payments.
Ray Denny, the executive director of the county’s Economic Development Coalition and vice president of economic development for the Chamber of Commerce, oversees the incentive process. Once a company comes forward with an expansion, he explains, he sets up confidential meetings between Creighton and the applicant.
“Both the city and the county have their formulas for incentives—how many jobs have to be generated; what kind. They have to be good jobs, paying at least $14 to $15 an hour, and the employer has to pay at least 50 percent of the health-care costs,” says Denny. “There are some very strict criteria. We’re not just driving around in a Brink’s truck handing out bags of gold. We have to have a return on the investment in 10 years. We usually expect one in three to four, or the money stops.”
Additionally, the funds must be used for a tangible expansion, such as real estate, construction or machinery. Conceding that the process tends to focus on manufacturers, Denny says he can understand complaints that it tends to favor larger companies over smaller, more local businesses. But the sheer amount of investment larger manufacturers bring to the community benefits everyone, he maintains.
“I was talking to [Bellows], and he said that Unison signs a dozen or more checks every month to local businesses,” Denny notes. “There is a major ripple effect, because local companies end up providing supplies or being vendors. I’m very hopeful we see more of these meetings with more companies, ending with everyone having big smiles on their faces.”
Ramsey told Xpress that the recent $1 million-plus incentives given to BorgWarner and Unison are “a good thing; it’s good that these companies are expanding, bringing in a good number of high-paying jobs.”
As for concerns that the incentive process benefits larger companies, Ramsey asserted that “we need to have manufacturing, and that’s a sector of the economy that’s gone through some hard times lately,” adding that “these large expansions bring a lot of good jobs into the county.”
In the re-zone
The board also voted 4-0 to rezone four properties along U.S. Highway 70 from residential to commercial. “All of these were businesses, and they were zoned residential,” noted Ramsey.
Zoning Administrator Jim Coman said that in this case, the property owners “hadn’t expected zoning to be in place so quickly” and thus missed the opportunity to appeal their designation without going before the commissioners.
During public comment on the rezoning, Rice said he wasn’t surprised that the owners had been confused about the zoning designations. Zoning, he asserted, “was done so fast and wicked that people didn’t understand what happened until it caught them.”
Another rezoning, also approved 4-0, was requested by Myron Gottfried, who runs a weddings-and-events venue on his Justice Ridge Road property in Candler and wants to build a lodge to house some of the guests.
But one of Gottfried’s neighbors, Ron Fisher, wasn’t happy about it. “I have no problem with this business—they’ve always been good neighbors—but the concern I have is when that property leaves the Gottfrieds,” said Fisher. “They could put a car lot, a big honking hotel, anything they want on that commercial property.”
Gottfried replied that as the county has only one commercial-zoning designation, he had to get it rezoned if he wanted to build the lodge.
“If we had a wide variety of zoning choices, we wouldn’t have to request this, but that’s the only choice we have,” he told the board.
Rather than adjourning the meeting, the commissioners continued it to June 24, when they’ll hear a presentation on the controversial Parkside condo project and consider new storm-water regulations.