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County may eye 'shell' buildings

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New Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Economic Development Director Christian Lockamy speaks for the first time at the local EDC meeting, Wednesday.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Friday, March 22, 2019

Pasquotank County officials plan to study constructing “shell buildings” to lure new employers, one of several economic development goals that county commissioners recently endorsed.

Christian Lockamy, director of the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Economic Development Commission, advocated for shell buildings —– at least in concept — during Wednesday's EDC meeting. County Manager Sparty Hammett also explained the county formed tentative goals following commissioners' retreat several weeks ago. If those goals are approved in a follow-up meeting, they would include researching shell buildings during the coming budget year.

Speculative or shell buildings are large, empty buildings that businesses can quickly buy and customize to their operations. Companies prize the buildings because they provide certainty, and the ability to start work quickly, he explained.

“These guys are moving fast,” and live in a world of “just-in-time delivery” and constant change, Lockamy said. “I have never seen a company that is not looking to do something yesterday.”

Lockamy also reported that, based on a review of state data on companies' inquiries about specific sites in North Carolina and Virginia, more than half are looking for an existing building.

As he's acknowledged before, Lockamy said shell buildings come with costs and risks. They may cost several million dollars to build, and they may sit empty for a few years before they're sold. However, he said several communities, such as Wilson and Mocksville in North Carolina, and Suffolk in Virginia, have landed millions in investment and many jobs through shell buildings over the years.

Shell buildings also work best as public-private partnerships, where a local government brings in a developer to help share costs, he explained.

Lockamy also suggested that, if Suffolk has a private developer “right in our backyard” doing shell buildings, the county should invite them to consider investment there.

Though Lockamy strongly argued for the potential of shell buildings, county officials are far from actually funding one. Hammett said that, with commissioners' approval, county staff would study all the particulars of shell buildings, including what kinds and sizes of buildings would most likely draw employers.

Lockamy also said Wednesday that he continues pursuing site certifications for the Pasquotank Commerce Park and the city-county aviation park. Absent shell buildings, companies often consider “shovel-ready” land as the next best thing, he said, and so he's working to get the parks certified through ElectriCities and the N.C. Department of Commerce. Both entities will more strongly promote Pasquotank's sites if they're certified as ready for construction, he said.

In another proposed goal, Hammett also reported the county is looking at a public-private partnership to establish a “Tanglewood Megasite,” which would cover thousands of acres available for development west of the U.S. Highway 17 Bypass and Halstead Boulevard Extended. Assembling the site would require dealing with multiple landowners.

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