The big fix | Bob Burtman | Indy Week
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The big fix 

Dreams die hard, even pipe dreams. So take with a grain of salt, or perhaps a beach's worth of grains, the Good News that has recently been emanating from the sleepy confines of Kinston's Global TransPark. By way of a refresher, the TransPark was proposed in the early 1990s by a UNC professor as a futuristic multi-modal manufacturing and air cargo complex that would become one of the world's leading commercial hubs and single-handedly breathe vigor into the depressed eastern part of the state. Initial projections included almost 60,000 jobs and $3.8 billion in annual economic impact by the year 2000.

More than a decade and $80 million in public spending later (plus another $100 million for related road and infrastructure improvements), the TransPark consists primarily of scattered warehouses and hangars flanking an 11,500-foot runway. Though the runway was designed to handle the world's mightiest cargo planes, the planes have yet to materialize. Several businesses use the warehouses as a distribution center for their operations in the region; most of the cargo is trucked in and out. The number of jobs generated by the TransPark--not including those created by the state to sell the project--totals at most a couple of thousand, the majority of those lured by hefty incentives. In fact, the place isn't all that different from what it was before the TransPark was born: a regional airport surrounded by a largely undeveloped industrial park.

To hear the boosters tell it, however, the Global TransPark is right on track. Delays in getting the project off the ground have now been resolved after a lengthy environmental review; the runway has finally been completed, and the facility is ready to fulfill its lofty promise. Moreover, the TransPark has been in the running to land its first big fish, a Boeing jet assembly plant that would provide 1,200 jobs and have a major ripple effect in the local economy. Despite a recent announcement that Boeing will build the planes in Washington state, Tar Heel politicians insist that Kinston may yet prevail. "We feel like we are through the development stage and are now in business mode," current TransPark director Darlene Waddell told the Triangle Business Journal in August. "Now, we've got something to show and to sell."

If this seems disconcertingly familiar, there's a good reason. In 2001, a previous TransPark chief, Paul Busick, proclaimed that "We're near the end of the rainbow." Three years earlier, the TransPark was touted as a finalist for a giant FedEx hub (which ultimately went to Greensboro). "This is an idea with great, great promise," then-Gov. Jim Hunt said in 1996, responding to criticism of the TransPark's slow start. "Once we build the first runway and put in the equipment to rapidly load these planes and off-load them, we should see the businesses start to appear." Reports of negotiations with various Fortune 100 companies have been floated repeatedly over the years.

Such predictions of success have flowed freely since the legislature first approved funding of the project in 1992, prompting Kinston Mayor Buddy Rich to declare that the TransPark was "a gift from the Lord."

But not only has the TransPark failed to land a single major manufacturer, the state can't even give the thing away. Last year, government officials offered the TransPark to the Department of Homeland Security to establish an air security training center; the feds declined. State Sen. Patrick Ballantine (R-New Hanover) recently proposed turning the entire TransPark over to Boeing for one dollar if the company would locate there. The extent of the freebies the legislature will propose for Boeing at its upcoming special incentives session has yet to be determined.

But Boeing won't locate there, and neither will any other marquee tenants, unless a backbreaking incentives package constitutes an offer they can't refuse. That's partly because the TransPark's relatively remote location lacks many of the key amenities on corporate priority lists, such as easy access to an interstate highway network and commercial air service. Nor have the basic high-tech manufacturing premises on which the TransPark concept was based ever been demonstrated as applicable or viable. "The Global TransPark was a highly speculative project with no feasibility study and no identified demand," says Don Carrington of the Carolina Journal, one of the TransPark's most vocal critics.

Corporate relocation experts have said this from the start, had anyone been interested in the opinions of the experts. After they finished laughing, the executives of the many international companies around the world who received visits and pitches from TransPark envoys doubtless did the same. But two governors, a host of legislators and thousands of hopeful citizens latched onto the TransPark as the bullet train to fiscal salvation, and they've been slow to let go. "It's still our greatest hope for an economic breakthrough in Eastern North Carolina," Hunt said as late as 2001. "We are determined to finish what we have begun," former Gov. Jim Martin said several months later.

Governors should know better, but the idea that a single fix can cure all ills or turn into a gusher is a seductive one, even if it has few real-world models. And those models (such as Research Triangle Park) worked because of right-place, right-time factors that acted as private-sector magnets, not because politicians willed them to succeed.

Even the abject failure of the Global TransPark hasn't deterred others from pursuing a parallel fantasy. TransPark equivalents are on the drawing board in Kentucky and West Virginia, with about the same chance of coming to fruition.

The big-fix mentality can best be seen in the national mania for building civic centers and sports stadiums to "revitalize" sagging downtowns. Bolstered by inflated consultant reports that transform serious financial risks into sure-fire guarantees, cities large and small have been pumping scarce tax dollars into these massive white elephants at a NASCAR pace for the last 20 years. A state-of-the-art civic center is never enough to attract the handful of major conventions for which everyone competes--Raleigh, for example, will have to subsidize a new high-end downtown hotel alongside its new center, and there's still no assurance the city can compete with the dozens of other destinations that combine adequate facilities with tourist appeal. Studies show that stadiums, which tend to transfer discretionary spending from one local option to another, rarely pay for themselves, an experience that apparently applies to the RBC Center.

It never hurts to test an idea, even an overblown one. But projects like the Global TransPark have a way of turning into black holes, demanding more and more precious resources that could be used in more productive, if less spectacular, ways. If the runway extension doesn't work, then build a connector to I-95. If that doesn't prove enough of a draw, then add something else. The process never ends. And once enough has been invested, proponents can invoke the old nuclear power plant argument: Well, we've already invested $[fill-in-the-blank] million, so we can't back out now.

N.C. State's Centennial Campus has followed that predictable course. Struggling to reach critical mass at its "advanced technology community," university Chancellor Marye Anne Fox has asked for more than $60 million in additional public funds to build a conference center with a luxury hotel and golf course that she and other school officials believe will leverage keener interest from the heavyweight corporate partners they covet.

Next in line will be UNC's freshly unveiled Carolina North campus, a research and academic center to rival its rivals that will almost double the size of the university when (and if) it's ultimately built out. Consultants estimate that the roads, water and sewer lines and other infrastructure for the project will cost more than $100 million, and that doesn't include any bricks and mortar. How long before university officials come to the public trough begging for their own hotel or other carrots?

Big fixes may be an easy sell, but economic vitality doesn't come so simply. Rather, it's a slow, organic process in which an area's natural assets combine with good planning, leadership and a little creative marketing. Raleigh's Glenwood South stands as a prime example: Without government welfare, the area has evolved from a barren zone into a thriving mixture of residences and small businesses, a true model of renewal that will continue to pulsate long after the Global TransPark has turned to dust. EndBlock


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