By Kim Barto Meeks
Government and business leaders celebrated a pair of positive economic development announcements recently at a new advanced manufacturing training site in Henry County.
During a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Oct. 23, local officials and their funding partners praised the teamwork and partnerships that led to the opening of the $6.75 million, 26,000-square-foot Commonwealth Centre for Advanced Training (CCAT) in Ridgeway.
Earlier the same afternoon, CCAT hosted an announcement that British metals company Advanced Revert LLC plans to invest $5 million in Henry County and create more than 30 new jobs. While Advanced Revert will not be located in the industrial park, the company will open its first U.S. operation nearby at the former Ridgeway Clocks site.
CCAT is the first building to open in the Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre, a publicly owned industrial park that sits along the southernmost border of Henry County where Virginia and North Carolina meet. The park’s main entrance is located off of highway 220 on the Carolina side, but the actual industrial site — and its tax revenue — reside in Virginia.
Companies locating in Commonwealth Crossing will have exclusive access to CCAT. Designed with advanced manufacturing needs in mind, the building includes a 15,000-square-foot high bay where clients can temporarily house equipment and train workers; 10,000 square feet of office space; executive meeting rooms and classrooms for corporate training.
Even before the Oct. 23 grand opening, economic development leaders said CCAT was already operating exactly as they had hoped — as a temporary base for new companies to work, hire, and train staff.
Commonwealth Crossing secured its first business tenant, Press Glass, in 2018, when the Polish company announced a $45 million investment in Henry County and 212 new jobs. It is currently in the process of constructing a new 280,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in the lot across from CCAT that is slated to open in spring 2020.
Employees of Press Glass have been working out of CCAT in recent months while the factory is being built. Press Glass also hosted two “meet and greet” info sessions for potential workers to learn more about the company at CCAT in September that attracted about 400 people, said Mark Heath, president/CEO of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. (EDC).
Addressing an audience of more than 100 people gathered in CCAT’s industrial bay for the grand opening, Allyson Rothrock, President of The Harvest Foundation, called it “a state-of-the-art facility, the first of its kind.”
Harvest was one of multiple funding agencies backing the industrial park development. The foundation awarded about $10.6 million in grants, including $5 million to Henry County for site grading, more than $600,000 to develop water and sewer infrastructure, and $5 million to the EDC for construction of CCAT.
“We had to create something new and out of the box. We had never heard of or seen anything like this,” Rothrock recalled. “Now, our first company is here and using this building as intended.”
Jim Adams, Chairman of the Henry County Board of Supervisors, said the business park and CCAT “represent what is best about our community.”
Adams recalled standing outside at the building site on a rainy day in September 2017, with “mud everywhere.” He and other officials were there for a groundbreaking ceremony, but it should have been called a “mud-breaking,” he quipped.
In contrast, Heath said in his remarks, “Here we are, 25 months later, in this beautifully designed building.”
Martinsville Mayor Kathy Lawson called the CCAT opening “a cause for celebration.” While the site is located in the county, Henry County and the city of Martinsville both contributed funds and will share revenue from companies that locate there.
In addition to The Harvest Foundation and local governments, other funders include the Henry County Industrial Development Authority, the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, and the EDC.
Development was aided in part by leveraging complex New Market Tax Credits, which Adams called the “Rubix cube of finance.”
Two funding partners who worked with the tax credits spoke about the process. One was Bryan Phipps, Vice President and Chief Development Officer of People, Inc., a nonprofit community development agency.
Phipps described the New Market Tax program as a way to “invest very low-cost debt into projects.” He said it is notable that their application was successful, because “there is very strong competition for these tax credits.”
“One thing that stood out for me was the level of community support and vision,” he said of the project.
Also speaking was Chris Sears, Senior Vice President and SBIC Investment Director at SunTrust Community Capital. SunTrust was the other partner in obtaining the tax credits.
Sears said the “goal is for these tax dollars to drive economic development,” focusing on “education, training, and job creation in underserved communities.”
Echoing Phipps, Sears praised the EDC and county staff for their work on a complex project.
“This deal really did stand out because of the passion of the team,” Sears said. “There really is momentum here.”
However, as several speakers noted, transforming several hundred acres of forest and farmland into shovel-ready sites for new industry was no simple feat. It took 12 years, tens of millions of dollars, many partner agencies, and a long permit battle with the feds to bring Commonwealth Crossing into existence.
Henry County first purchased 740 acres along the Virginia-North Carolina border in 2007 and 2008 with plans to create an industrial park. Officials intended to develop larger land parcels for “mega-projects,” suitable for attracting larger advanced manufacturers to the area. The property’s location off highway 220, with one lot adjacent to a rail line, and convenience to the Piedmont Triad Airport were also touted as selling points for new industry.
But before the industrial park could start attracting business prospects, the land required extensive grading to make it suitable for building. Grading could not proceed until a federal agency approved a permit, and that’s where the site development process stalled for several years.
According to news archives on the Henry County website, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would not give approval to grade the sites because the agency required the “end users,” or corporations that would be locating there, to already be identified. Local officials insisted the grading had to be done first, or potential clients would not consider locating there in the first place.
After years of discussions and negotiations, including help from Martinsville-Henry County’s representatives in Congress, the Corps finally granted the grading permit in 2014. From there, it took about two years of work to get lots 1 and 4 (about 170 acres in total) cleared, level, and shovel-ready for new development.
CCAT and Press Glass facilities are located on lot 1. The industrial park includes other tracts of land that have not yet been graded but may be addressed in future phases of development.