State’s deal for megasite could be new model

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

The state’s deal to buy a massive undeveloped tract near Savannah was reached using a new economic development strategy that could be replicated throughout Georgia.

The pending purchase of a 2,284-acre tract along I-16 in Bryan County marks the first time that the state has partnered with multiple county development authorities on an acquisition. The state pooled its own funds with local money so it could make a higher purchase offer, said Pat Wilson, the state’s economic development commissioner.

Wilson hopes to use the technique to buy more property across the state for new industrial parks.

In the past, local development authorities have taken the lead on buying land to create potential industrial sites, said Kevin Brown, an economic development attorney at Seyfarth Shaw. Now, the state wants to take the lead role.

Wilson and others have described the Bryan County site as Georgia’s biggest and best potential industrial site. The purchase price won’t be disclosed until the deal closes, which is expected by July 31.

The megasite has strengths that other sites in Georgia can’t match, Wilson said. Its soil is better able to absorb heavy rain, and there aren’t hills, he said. And the location is near interstate highways, railroads and the Port of Savannah.

Officials believe that it’s essential that the state controls the Bryan County site. Companies typically want to move quickly when they decide to purchase property, Wilson said. A deal will close faster if the state is the seller instead of private owners, because the state won’t try to squeeze out the highest possible profit, and all environmental permitting will have been completed, he said.

“We’ve lost a number of projects to competitor states who have had sites ready to go,” Wilson said. “Their turnaround time was so much quicker.”

He declined to name specific areas where Georgia could partner with local agencies to acquire sites.

Most large economic development projects now require at least 2,000 contiguous acres. Georgia’s previous megasite, about 20 miles east in Pooler, totaled 1,560 acres before development began.

“Companies want to build for today and for the future,” Wilson said.

The site is 26 miles west of the Port of Savannah. Amazon, Home Depot and Walmart have built distribution centers near the port and a large manufacturing company would also want close proximity to the port.

Wilson declined to say if the state is in talks with potential candidates about the Bryan County site. But he noted that the property would be a good fit for the automotive sector, which could include a manufacturer like Kia, or a maker of batteries for electric vehicles.

Wilson said he’s especially keen on the potential of the aerospace industry as the economy rebounds from the pandemic and consumers start flying again for business or vacations.

“You’re going to see a massive rebirth of the aerospace industry … when airlines start flying again,” he said.