In an age where landing even a $50 million economic development project is considered a major win, Michael Smith sheepishly admits the numbers generated in Chatham County this year are almost “cartoonish” in scope.
It all got started last March with VinFast — at the time, with $4 billion in investment and 7,500 new jobs, the biggest industrial announcement in N.C. history. The Vietnamese company is now more than a third finished with site preparation work on its land at Triangle Innovation Point, near Moncure, the future home of its massive electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing plant set to roll out EVs in the summer of 2024. (Plant construction will begin in early 2023.)
Add in semiconductor maker Wolfspeed’s $5 billion, 1,700-job announcement for the Chatham-Siler City Advanced Manufacturing site in September, and FedEx’s April shipping hub launch near the VinFast site, and Smith — president of Chatham’s Economic Development Corporation, and the chief internal engineer of the county’s industrial development efforts — acknowledges something truly unprecedented here: more than $9 billion in investment and 9,000 new jobs coming to rural, potential-laden Chatham, all announced within the span of a few months.
Cartoonish? Given the gargantuan scale, maybe. But talk to Smith these days — if you can catch him in between VinFast- and Wolfspeed-related meetings or conference calls with corporate, state and local officials, or talking with other industrial prospects — and he eventually shifts the focus to a much more modest, decidedly less cartoonish number: 2,000.
That’s the combined acreage still available in Chatham: 1,400 additional acres at the CAM site, 300 acres in a business park adjacent to the CAM site, and another 300 acres at TIP West, next to VinFast’s location.
Which is to say: even after landing the two largest economic development projects in state history, Chatham County still has more megasite property available than any county in the state.
So describing the development picture in Chatham as “ramping up” doesn’t begin to address the scope of the reality. In addition to the available acreage for other large manufacturing tenants, the aforementioned projects already committed to the county will mostly likely lead to thousands of so-called “halo” jobs — additional positions created by other companies and industries coming here to support VinFast and Wolfspeed. Dr. Mike Walden, a retired economist from N.C. State who often speaks at Chatham County business events, has been quoted as saying that the multiplier effect is one for one: roughly one additional job in supplier, parts and service firms for every job in a new manufacturing facility — turning those 9,000 jobs into something that’s a bit hard to fathom in a county of just more than 70,000 residents.
And Smith says Chatham’s even better positioned because its two new industries — electric vehicles and semiconductors — are among the fastest-growing fields in the U.S.
“Actually, what we’ve seen at the CAM site in the last six months is companies that are both related to EVs and semiconductors — which is exactly what you would want,” he told the News + Record. “You know, it’s amazing. I was at a national conference a few weeks ago listening to all these national speakers saying the two big industry segments right now — that everybody who’s an economic developer in America wants — is something electric vehicle-related, or something semiconductor-related. And the fact that we won these two … it’s amazing.”
Smith said VinFast is utilizing and employing “top” partners for its Chatham facility, including people and teams which have been involved in other automotive sector projects across the U.S. And even as VinFast prepares to go public — it’ll be listed on the NASDAQ exchange as “VFS” — next year to help fund its work, all signs still point to the July 2024 start date for its EVs to roll off the assembly line.
Production at the 1,700-acre TIP site in Chatham will include the company’s five-seat VF-8 SUV (starting at $41,000) and its seven-seat VF-9 SUV (starting at $56,000).
About 25 people, including Smith, are involved in regular bi-weekly meetings — at 2 p.m. every other Tuesday, directed by the state’s Division of Environmental Quality — that he says “are intended to keep the project moving forward and on track.”
“These virtual meetings are structured to make sure the multiple groups involved are aware of the schedule and expectations,” he said.
Attendees include automotive project consultants hired by VinFast, multiple county departments, plus officials from Dominion Energy, water and sewer consultants Freese & Nichols, various engineering and environmental consultants, state officials and even representatives from the Moncure Fire Department.
“We’re constantly talking and looking at that July 2024 timeline, and working backward and looking at all these different phases of what needs to happen,” Smith said.
He added that the planning and communication process is working so well that it’s being used as a selling point both in Chatham and at the state level — because in these tightly-scripted virtual meetings, everyone involved is seeing the same documents, the same checklists, receiving the same formal recaps sent after meetings, and having total accountability.
“There’s just zero room for somebody to say, ‘Well, I didn’t know I was supposed to be doing this,’ or ‘I didn’t know so-and-so was not going to be doing that,’” he said.
With several VinFast executives having moved to the state — three in Wake County and another in Charlotte — everyone who needs to be “in the room,” even though it’s virtual, is there, according to Smith. It’s part of the reason the permitting process for VinFast — and for Wolfspeed, so far — is moving so quickly.
“We’re hitting these milestones as we need to in order to make the time frame for the client,” he said.
Chatham County Manager Dan LaMontagne, who’s involved in those meetings, agreed.
“We are very pleased with the progress they are making,” he said of VinFast. “Land clearing has been under way for some time now. Water and wastewater design and easement acquisition is progressing. State permitting for air quality is expected this month and then we expect to get construction plans for review.”
It’s a similar story for Wolfspeed, LaMontagne said; the company, in fact, has already submitted its construction plans.
“We meet regularly with all parties to stay on track with both projects and believe both are on their expected schedules,” he said.
As Christmas approaches, Smith thinks back to a year ago — when things with VinFast, which had earlier in the year visited Chatham County, “lit up” the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
“You know, we didn’t have a holiday last year,” he said of himself and his team at the EDC and others involved in a series of late-year calls and site visits. “And then, going through February, March … it was crazy.”
Smith spoke about the work done then, and being done now, by a team of local and state officials and the ground they’ve covered during 2022 — and new team approaches being continually developed as the VinFast and Wolfspeed projects move forward.
When asked what he’d like to see checked off as “completed” this time next year, he responded by saying at the top of his list would both projects being “exactly where they respectively want to be,” and the county continuing to be responsive.
But also at the top of Smith’s list is working to “connect these two big battleships with our small businesses.”
Already, the EDC is working on putting together a consortium of regional Chambers of Commerce, through CCCC’s Small Business Center, to connect VinFast and Wolfspeed to nearby small businesses.
“Somebody who’s operating a restaurant in downtown Pittsboro doesn’t have time to figure out who they need to speak to at VinFast,” he said. “That needs to be our job, and we need to figure out how to connect them …”
Then there’s also helping with workforce housing and all that entails, making sure these thousands of new employees have homes to move into, and schools for their children to attend.
Having two “monster projects” like that within one county makes those considerations important ones. Smith cited help from and partnership with Chatham’s neighbors in Lee County and Randolph County — both of which have also landed major economic development projects in the last couple of years, and both of which are involved in various ways in the VinFast and Wolfspeed work.
“I see that as a huge positive,” he said, “because obviously these companies and suppliers and employees don’t see, or know or care, about city or county boundaries. Nor should they. That’s our challenge, not theirs. But all that’s exciting.”
And, no doubt, gratifying for Smith.
He shared a story of a friend and professional colleague in the N.C. Economic Development Association calling him out — in jest — at a recent conference, saying he was going to have to ask a former officer (that being Smith, a former president) to “no longer be affiliated” with the group. Chatham did, after all, land the two largest projects in state history, and it’s a history not yet fully written.
“Because of all the stuff we’ve got going on, they’ve had fun giving me a lot of grief,” Smith said. “But you know, they’re happy for me and for us. These wins are our wins, but one of the talking points we’ve used is that Chatham County is within an hour of 22 other counties, which is more than one-fifth of the state. And so, this win for Chatham County is a win for lots of other counties as well.”
Publisher Bill Horner III can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @billthethird.