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Bridge far enough helped seal deal for jet engine plant

Over 18 months — from the first overtures at the Paris Air Show to the vote by the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners authorizing property tax breaks — elected leaders in Buncombe and Henderson counties and beyond, the industry recruiting apparatus of the state and region and the community college system had scrambled to meet the needs of the prized aerospace catch.

As often happens in the recruitment of a prized manufacturer, a bidding war ensued. A major gap in the Biltmore Farms pitch was the lack of access, a challenge that a new bridge over the French Broad River would solve. Problem: Around that time it came to light that the North Carolina Department of Transportation had overspent its construction budget by $700 million. There would be no bridge money from the DOT. Enter state Sen. Chuck Edwards, who represents Henderson, Transylvania, and southern Buncombe County.

“I was the last cog in the wheel,” he said. “We were at an impasse until I got the call. We had to be creative to fill the gap and find millions and we were working against the clock.

The company had contracts that would expire in two years, so timing was critical to get the new plant up and running. “The General Assembly had little appetite for using state appropriations so we had to find other sources to make up the difference,” he said. “In October of 2019, we were battling the governor over the budget, the Legislature was scheduled to adjourn and there was little time to garner support.”

The bridge contribution was not cash up front but instead money the company would not have to spend. “Everything had to stay within the guardrails set by the state,” Edwards said. Some of the in-kind support came in the form of training from the community colleges. Some was in utility and highway infrastructure. Buncombe County would be asked to provide property tax incentives. Biltmore Farms was giving the land free but there was still a big chunk of money — the $15 million bridge. Edwards scrambled to work the phones.

“We went to the Golden LEAF Foundation and I went down the list of board members calling one after another,” Edwards recalled. “We had to prove that our multi-county ‘laborshed’ could benefit half of Western North Carolina. Eventually they came around and we were back in the game.”

Created 21 years ago to receive funds coming to North Carolina from the settlement in 1998 of a lawsuit against cigarette manufacturers, Golden LEAF makes grants to advance job growth and economic development across the state. Current director Scott Hamilton, who was the first chief executive of the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development, was not officially on board with Golden LEAF until November of 2019 but was kept in consultation.

Golden LEAF offered $12 million of the $15 million needed for the bridge. Biltmore Farms chipped in the remaining $3 million.

“This project will move North Carolina’s economic needle,” he said.

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