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.