WEBGene Therapy construction Oct2019

Sanford Mayor Chet Mann

Once in a generation, if you’re fortunate, a major industry decides to locate in your community, bringing with it jobs and tax base. It’s the Holy Grail for any mayor and the savior to many a community. Just the initial investment is like hitting the municipal lottery. The ongoing investment, not only of capital, but of people, is what changes a city.

chetmannFor years we were fortunate to be known as the Brick Capital of the World. We also thrived, like many southern cities, in textiles and furniture making. But when the 1990s hit, we all know what happened to textiles and furniture as many in those industries went to Central America and elsewhere.

Then the housing meltdown and financial crisis hit in the 2000’s. Brick demand gave way to alternative products, and we were no longer the Brick Capital. Lee Brick and the Perry family are still here, thank goodness, but Cherokee Sanford Brick is long gone, just as are most textiles, with the notable exception of Frontier Spinning.

Fast forward to 2010. A whole lot of people began an incredible amount of work, and new investments — both private and public — started taking place. We had to start planting the seeds for economic development to come back to Sanford. That’s where a local election in 2013 and the formation of the Sanford Area Growth Alliance (SAGA) in 2015 took hold and took off.

Seeing the work put forth locally and the changes evident in Sanford and Lee County, Pfizer felt secure enough to let local leadership know they were competing for a new product and facility in our community. They saw Sanford and Lee County as we hoped they would — a place where they could not only expand, but thrive again.

It’s hard to put into words what having Pfizer’s Global Center of Excellence in Gene Therapy means to Sanford. Just this initial investment of $500 million and the new payroll tax it creates will add an estimated 8 percent to Lee County’s tax base. That’s an incredible number. Add Bharat Forge’s recent announcement and the number goes to around 12 percent, an absolutely staggering impact. Adding those kinds of numbers to a tax base in such a short period of time is like turning a battleship around. It just doesn’t happen that fast — but it did here. For most, that kind of jump in a single year would be a fantasy.

Gene therapy science is the future and now we are home to it. This industry is known to cluster and just the existence of a facility like this has the potential to draw in other life science companies. We’ve already seen evidence of this through the project requests that have come into SAGA since Pfizer’s announcement.

At the end of the day, we have an opportunity to be known as the White Lab Coat Capital. A Life Sciences Capital. Those monikers alone can change perceptions and begin to lift an entire manufacturing base, not to mention the average median income.

What’s really exciting about Pfizer’s expansion is the quality of life improvements that companies like this help bring. It’s the fruition of a well laid plan and a lot of work. There’s an expression that says the one who plants the tree never gets to enjoy the shade. But this time we do. People seem to have a greater sense of the place they call home when they realize how significant a global center of excellence in their midst plays into their world. More parks, more downtown improvements, more retail options, and more expansion. We have new retail, big box and small. We’ve filled empty buildings, including some I never thought we’d see converted.

If you were here during the Great Recession, you know that we never want to see that kind of massive reduction in our manufacturing base ever again. If you grew up here, you know how difficult it is to see your downtown get old and stale.

For me, this $500 million expansion by Pfizer represents hope and future prosperity. It also means we keep working and striving for better. It means we reward our citizens. It’s an indicator of how great we’ve become. It means the Sanford train has left the station and our best days are ahead of us. I’m so proud of our effort. I love Sanford.