State Official Advises Commission On Megasite Project

Developing the Little Canoe Creek property as a megasite will be a long and costly process, but the result could be hundreds of jobs in Etowah County.

Ted Clem, director of business development with the Alabama Department of Commerce, met with the County Commission Tuesday to explain how the state can be involved and assist in the project.

The commission has 850 acres and is in the process of acquiring an additional 150 acres to meet the minimum acreage required for a megasite.

The property is between Interstate 59 and U.S. Highway 11, about 4 miles from the Steele exit on Interstate 59. The site will be accessible from Steele Station Road, U.S. Highway 11 and by rail.

The commission in 2008 voted to purchase the first piece of land — about a 200-acre tract — and gradually increased the acreage to the current size, making it the largest site of its type in Northeast Alabama.

“I want to congratulate you for the progress so far,” Clem said. However, there’s still much to be done to prepare the property for a company that needs a megasite.

“This is the unsexy part of economic development,” Clem said.

He said officials in Montgomery are well aware of the Etowah County site and its potential, but many questions remain.

It comes down, he said, to a company’s timeline to choose a site to meet its needs at the lowest capital investment.

“The site needs to be able to meet the timeline they choose,” Clem said.

To be ready for development, a site’s access to infrastructure such as electricity, water, gas and sewer already has to be determined.

“They want to know if you can meet the demands of the infrastructure,” Clem said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be in place, but there has to be a plan in place. If there’s any question mark, you’re going to be eliminated from the process, because at the end of the day, it comes down to a real estate decision.”

He said quality of life, schools and similar issues mean nothing if the site isn’t what a company needs. “You should do a hard analysis about where your site stacks up against your competition,” he said.

Three other sites in the state describe themselves as megasites, Clem said, one each in Baldwin, Madison and Shelby counties. He indicated it’s also important to see what other states around the Southeast are doing.

Clem said it comes down to what the commission is willing to do to make the project a success, adding, “We’re here to partner with you to win a project.”

Common pitfalls in a project of this nature are what lead to failure, he said. It’s important not to make a promise that cannot be fulfilled.

“It’s a very deadly sin,” Clem said. “If you say we can get this sewer line in 12 months, you better move heaven and earth to make it happen.”

Confidentiality is another important issue. Clem said once the project proceeds and there are discussions with specific companies, non-disclosure agreements usually are signed.

“It (improper disclosures) can ruin a project in a hurry,” he said.

Clem cited a project in Madison County as an example of a group that did it right. He said officials there began working 10 years ago toward economic growth in an area between Interstate 65 and I-565. They moved forward with engineering studies, water, sewer, electricity and gas accessibility plans, and had other infrastructure in place.

A year ago, Polaris announced plans to build a plant that will bring hundreds of job to that area.

“A lot of hard work went into that,” Clem said.

He emphasized that any project takes time and money, and Etowah County officials must decide how to proceed.

“You have to decide what’s the best shot to put the best package together to win a project,” he said.

Times Staff Writer