October 5, 2017 | Allen Turner
Columbus County commissioners Monday night unanimously voted to accept an offer from the R.J. Corman Railroad Group to purchase the former Georgia-Pacific property between Whiteville and Chadbourn for $2.15 million.
The Nicholasville, Ky. railroad company, which in 2015 obtained ownership of the former Carolina Southern Railroad that operates in Columbus, Horry and Marion counties, will have 30 days to close the sale or forfeit $50,000 in earnest money to the county, and Corman’s senior vice president for commercial development said Wednesday that the company fully intends to exercise its option to purchase the land.
Corman’s Noel Rush was succinct in commenting on the deal. “Here’s the thing,” he said. “Our plan to purchase that property is consistent with our intent to add increasingly significant freight rail on our Carolina Lines company, and that’s it. That’s what this is about. Increasing freight rail is a means to that end.” Rush expressed thanks for the support of the county commissioners “that awarded this opportunity to us.”
Rush wasn’t sure exactly the land deal will be closed, but emphasized that the company fully intends to purchase the property.
Columbus County commissioners voted 6-1 in November to buy the property from Georgia-Pacific for $1.896 million with Chairman James Prevatte casting the lone dissenting vote.
Project Black, a company whose identity has never been publicly announced, then obtained an option from the from the county to purchase the property, but their option expired at midnight Friday. Project Black had been under deadline to obtain financing for Phase I construction and didn’t do so by the time its option expired.
Project Black officials had said they would employ more than 150 people initially, which would make it the most significant new industry announcement here in years, but Project Black was unable to obtain necessary financing for the before their option on the property expired. When Project Black couldn’t finalize the purchase before their option expired, R.J. Corman Railroad stepped up to make the buy.
Despite having voted against the county acquiring the property in November, Prevatte Tuesday characterized the sale of the property to Corman as a “great opportunity” for the county. “We’re dealing with a strong, financially stable company (Corman) who has all kinds of options on what they want to do on the development of that property. I can see numerous jobs coming out of any of the options they choose to exercise.”
Although he was enthused about the sale to Corman, Prevatte defended his November vote against the county buying the property and said that he would vote the same way again if given the opportunity. “I still would have voted no, because we were talking about getting into business with a company (Project Black) for which I did not see any history or anything concrete to show me that they were going to have the ability to purchase,” Prevatte said.
If Corman hadn’t stepped up at the last minute,” Prevatte said, “we’d have been owning $2 million worth of property that was off the tax books and we would have been spending $7,000-10,000 a month on maintenance and security at the site.”
“I was afraid in November that we were going to be holding a pig in a poke and, if it wasn’t for Corman, we would have been. I didn’t like to see the county in that situation,” Prevatte said. “But Corman has a strong economic development arm and things are going to happen. Corman can sell, they can lease, they can subdivide and they can devote the property to their own use.”
Prevatte said that, in addition to paying $2.15 million for the property, Corman also will reimburse the county for any expenses it has incurred in maintaining and providing security at the site since November.
Observers see Corman’s purchase of the property as a major development in making the former G-P facility a viable industrial site once again. Corman will work with Project Black until it receives the financing it needs to begin operating. In the unlikely event that Project Black falters, R.J. Corman will partner with the county to find another company to bring jobs to the G-P site.
Yet another company, S&A Railroad Ties, also is prepared to set up shop at the site as an ancillary business to Project Black.
Columbus Jobs Foundation President Rick Edwards, who has worked closely behind the scenes with county Economic Developer Gary Lanier and the county Economic Development Commission, was ecstatic. “R.J. Corman buying that property is the greatest economic development news ever to hit Columbus County,” Edwards said Tuesday. “I think Corman buying the G-P site rivals the Riegel Paper (now International Paper) deal way back in the 1950s. I really believe it’s that important for future economic development here. If you look at the total puzzle that Corman is creating now, they’ve got a rail line with Project Black and other ancillary companies as drivers for the rail cars going out of Whiteville to the CSX line. This not only will create a huge amount of revenue for Corman, but also will make a major economic difference in Columbus County.”Edwards added, “With Corman’s help and with the help of North Carolina’s Southeast, we will be able to work together to accumulate ancillary businesses working together on that 145 acres to improve the local economy.” NC’s Southeast is an 18-county public-private economic development consortium headquartered in Elizabethtown that is headed by Columbus County resident Steve Yost.
Chairman Harry Foley of the Columbus County Economic Development Commission said, “We are delighted the county commissioners could work out the deal. It’s a positive all the way around. The commissioners ought to be commended, and so should the Columbus Jobs Foundation, the Economic Development Commission and Gary Lanier.”
Lanier, the Columbus County planning and economic development director, said, “Project Black is such a critical project for the success of the railroad operation and for the economic development of Columbus County. It is great that R.J. Corman is going to be able to help Project Black locate on the site and come to fruition.”
The economic developer revealed for the first time Tuesday that Columbus County still is in competition with an unnamed Oklahoma location for Project Black but said that with Corman’s acquisition of the G-P site, “Project Black will be a go in Columbus County.” He added that several other companies besides Project Black also have expressed an interest in the G-P property. “But Project Black will be able to get their financing now,” Lanier said. Project Black has received approval for issuing millions of dollars in solid waste recycling bonds to finance construction and start-up of their plant here, but the firm is awaiting a required air quality permit before those bonds can be issued.
“I am nothing but impressed with R.J. Corman railroad and all their folks,” Lanier said. “They are going to be a superior partner when it comes to economic development in Columbus County.”
The county commission chairman, Prevatte, heaped praise on County Attorney Mike Stephens, who also is serving as interim county manager while a replacement is sought for former manager Bill Clark.
“Mike Stephens is the one who put this deal together,” Prevatte said. “He worked all the way, even up to the eleventh hour, and he already had the deal signed by Corman when we met Monday night. Mike kept me abreast of developments all along and he was a very good asset throughout the negotiations. He had the legal expertise to handle the deal and it certainly helped that he had built a good relationship with the folks from Corman. I give him all the credit for making this thing happen.”