Chesterfield Debates Matoaca Mega-Site

Image credit: Chesterfield Observer

In August Governor Terry McAuliffe joined legislators and local government officials to announce plans to build an industrial “mega-site” in the Matoaca area of Chesterfield County. The county anticipates spending $9 million for preliminary engineering and right-of-way-acquisition and $70 million on road improvements, according to the Progress-Index, and that’s just the expenditures noted in the 2018 budget. The county likely will spend tens of millions more providing utility connections.

A mega-site, county officials says, will put Chesterfield in the running for a large-scale industrial manufacturer like an auto assembly plant or aerospace company capable of investing a $1 billion and creating 5,000 jobs. But there are no guarantees. Indeed, the track record of Chesterfield’s previous mega-site, the Meadowville Technology Park, is decidedly mixed.

Jim McConnell and Peter Galuszka raise good questions about mega-sites in a well-researched article in the Chesterfield Observer.

Twenty years ago the county rolled the dice on Meadowville in the hope of landing a semiconductor manufacturing facility. Instead, the U.S. semiconductor boom fizzled, and the 2008 recession intervened, and county officials lowered their aspirations for the park. Meadowville wound up attracting two data centers, a couple of warehouse operations (including an Amazon facility), and a bottling plant. County officials call the park a “success story,” noting that it has attracted $570 million in private investment, produced a 3,000% increase in real estate assessment and collected $24.45 million for land sold to date, with 726 acres yet to be developed.

But not everyone is impressed. “Meadowville was never intended to be a bunch of warehouses,” the Observer quotes Meadowville neighbor Freddy Boisseau as saying. “It was supposed to be computers, biotech, research and development. But the county couldn’t get what they wanted there, so they started searching for what they could get.”

What’s missing is a proper accounting that would allow Chesterfield citizens to draw an informed conclusion about whether the investment in Meadowville was worth the risk taken. What was the total investment in roads, utilities, land acquisition, engineering and improvements? How much has the county recouped in land sales, how much does the increased tax assessment generate in additional tax revenue, and do those revenues cover the debt service? Does the park represent a net gain or a net drain to county finances?

But that is only the beginning of questions that citizens should insist upon answering. Chesterfield has maintained its AAA bond rating, so it can’t be said that Meadowville did any obvious harm. But to what extent did investing in Meadowville crowd out other uses of the county’s debt capacity? What other capital projects went unfunded? And what other transportation improvements could the Virginia Department of Transportation have funded? Maybe Meadowville turned out to be a great investment, maybe it didn’t. The fact is, nobody has done the analysis, and county officials now are asking citizens to take it on faith that the new Matoaca mega-site is worthwhile.

When you roll dice in Las Vegas, you know the odds. It strikes me that Chesterfield, which is hardly unique in this regard, is gambling without knowing the odds. The logic behind mega-sites is more akin to that of someone playing the mega-lottery: You can’t win if you don’t buy a ticket. That’s fine for a $1 lottery ticket, but it’s not OK for a $100 million industrial site.

“They’re asking us to accept a major highway, rail and an industrial site in our neighborhood without anything more than the possibility of getting a company that will bring thousands of good jobs,” said Mike Uzel, leader of a citizen group, Bermuda Advocates for Responsible Development, that opposes the megasite. “This boils down to, do you believe them or not?”

As President Reagan famously said, trust but verify. Chesterfield citizens should get all the facts about Meadowville so they can make a retrospective judgment, and they should get all the facts about Matoaca.

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2 responses to “Chesterfield Debates Matoaca Mega-Site

  1. I don’t think Chesterfield is doing anything any different than Henrico did with their White Oak Technology Park .. which, give Henrico ED folks credit – that’s an impressive location with roads, rail, natural gas, power, interstate access, internet…

    So , sure.. Chesterfield wants to compete.

    The problem in Virginia is that we essentially pit the counties and cities against each other rather than incentivizing a “Greater Richmond Area” Regional approach where the sum of the individual parts can produce a regional win-win.. with sharing.

    We see a very similar story in the Fredericksburg Area…. we do have a “Regional Alliance” but “regional” agreements are tough … and even tougher with today’s politics where Regional authorities are opposed by tea-party type politicos .. who are against authorities with “unelected” leadership and administration.

    Those little political boundary lines are powerful in their impact on decisions – even ones that would benefit everyone.. they often divide instead.

    I’d like to see Virginia strongly incentivize regional partnerships and even penalize stand-alone efforts.. in the end .. these multiple efforts produce an excess of “stuff” that costs taxpayers money.

    Perhaps we need to set up regional authorities that _are_ elected?

  2. Went back and read the article authored by Peter and McConnell. which was well written and very informative.

    But with respect to the idea that the park “promised” high paying jobs but only delivered ”low paying” jobs… perhaps the issue is how much was given away/incentivized.. because even ” low paying” jobs are good jobs if the alternative is no jobs an more unemployment and people needing entitlements.

    So any kind of job-producing activity is way, way better than say places like Southwest or South Central Va which would find those kinds of jobs a plus.

    Any jobs we get is less folks who need “assistance” except we actually penalize people who work who can’t afford health insurance whereas if they
    are unemployed they will likely get MedicAid or just free ER care – both paid for by other taxpayers.

    In short – we need to get away from the idea that we don’t want “low paying” jobs.. Those jobs will compete for labor and fill a valuable niche in the economy… because not everyone has a high quality education but they still are capable of lower skilled work.. even if they still need assistance… less of it.

    We want work for everyone .. I just think it’s misguided to think of low skilled work as undesirable – if it’s a needed job.. take it. Don’t oppose efforts to attract more jobs unless they are “high paying”.

    .

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