GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – Piedmont Triad International Airport Executive Director Kevin Baker is very clear when asked: “I don’t know anything about a ‘Project Thunderbird.’”
Although he said he certainly is aware of the media reports about the economic development referendum signed this week by Gov. Roy Cooper to help lure an “airplane manufacturer” to the 1,000 vacant acres on the northern extension of his airport’s property. He also said a new company may not need all of that land.
“It just depends on who it is and what they need,” Baker said Tuesday.
This project became public last week when the General Assembly appropriated $106.75 million in a Job Development Investment Grant for “a high-yield project for an airplane manufacturer in Guilford County.”
And now that the Toyota battery plant has been announced for the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite, the focus has moved to the airport, for what could be a second significant economic project for the region.
State Sen. Donny Lambeth (R-Winston Salem) spoke the project’s code-name moniker, “Project Thunderbird,” while pitching the bill in the General Assembly.
We may not know who that company is, but we do know that, based on the qualifications for a JDIG, this project would mean about 1,700 new jobs and $500 million in investment, although the bill didn’t specify those numbers. They would make an average of $60,000 a year, the bill did stipulate.
State Sen. Michael Garrett (D-Greensboro) has said he thinks the deal will come together. “I think it’s about 70% chance – closer to 80% –that it’s going our way,” Garrett told WGHP last week. “But it’s not a done deal. I don’t want to jinx it.”
Garrett and his colleagues in the General Assembly won’t divulge the name of the company that might want to build there, either, but Baker says he has 1,000 acres in various stages of development on the north side of I-73 that is “ready for multiple users.”
“We have sections from 100 to 200 acres that are ready to go,” he said. “Any project that comes around will depend on where it goes and the needs to finalize it.”
The parcel is connected by a taxiway constructed across I-73 – “It needs to be paved,” Baker said – and the legislature’s appropriation directs $15 million for site work at the airport, $35 million for roadwork through the NC Department of Transportation and $56.75 million for the airport to use “for the construction of one or more new hangars.”
Baker said a radar tower that had to be relocated south near Market Street is just about complete. “That’s already funded,” he said. “It will be done by summertime.”
Garrett and his fellow state Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Greensboro) recently toured the site with NC Secretary of Commerce Machelle Baker Sanders, driving and walking around the land where much dirt has been moved from what was the Pleasant Ridge Golf Course.
Those incentives could be approved during a Department of Commerce committee meeting as soon as Wednesday. The Guilford County Board of Commissioners also have discussed incentives and has scheduled a public hearing on Dec. 16 to review those.
The airport has been a significant economic driver for the region for decades. Not only are there the airlines that carry passengers through the region, but there is also an airline manufacturer, plus suppliers and maintenance and repair operations among 50-or-so companies that help drive an economic engine that, as of 2019, had an $8,641,160,000 economic impact, based on a report commissioned and published by the NC Department of Transportation.
“That was published in January of 2021,” Baker said. “It’s the most recent data. COVID had some impact [in 2020], but I think most companies are back to where they were.”
The report says PTI employs 30,015 and generates $204.727 million in state and local taxes.
“PTI long has been an economic growth driver,” Garrett said. “This will put them on steroids.”
HondaJet is the only airplane builder on site, but HAECO, Cessna and FedEx all have significant operations in both supplies and maintenance and repairs.
Those enterprises are visible along the west side of I-73/I-840 and seem to suggest that any new enterprise would need a significant chunk of those available 1,000 acres.
But Baker said that HondaJet requires only about 130 acres. FedEx is probably the largest at about 160 acres.
Baker also reiterated what was included in statement issued by the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority after the economic development package was passed:
“The airport has attracted the interest of a number of aerospace companies, which the local economic development community is actively pursuing.”
“There is a lot of activity going on at our site,” Baker said.