By Richard Sullins |

The Vietnamese car company that announced plans this spring to build two models of electric vehicles and the batteries that will power them near Moncure has closed on a deal to buy 1,765 acres of property near the Lee County line along U.S. 1.

VinFast purchased the land for just under $44 million, according to a deed that was filed in Chatham County on August 2. The manufacturing plant is projected to hire about 7,500 workers when it opens in July of 2024.

The documents also show that the land was purchased from Lee-Moore Capital Company, an LLC operated in Sanford by Kirk Bradley of Chapel Hill.

The plant is the largest announced economic development project in North Carolina history, and it will be the company’s first facility outside Vietnam as it begins to expand operations into the North American market.

This purchase is a big step in VinFast’s bold plans announced on March 29 to have both the 5-person midsize VF 8 and 7-passenger VF 9 full size vehicles rolling off the assembly lines shortly after the plant opens two summers from now. Company officials have said construction work on the plant could begin as early as next month.

Lee County is key player

VinFast is counting on continued help from Governor Roy Cooper’s office and those of local leaders who are helping to move the project along at an almost warp speed basis. Cooper’s office is helping facilitate the elimination of red tape so the project meets its target dates, including assistance with funding for the necessary remodeling and renovations that will make the new campus operational.

A key component in being ready to have the plant opening on time lies in having a trained workforce ready to start work on the first day. And the training for those thousands of workers who will be employed there will be done at Central Carolina Community College in Sanford.

Lee County Commissioners received title last summer to a 22-acre tract of land adjacent to the college’s Kelly Drive campus previously owned and used by Magnetti Marelli. Since then, County Manager Dr. John Crumpton has been leading efforts to clean up hazardous waste spillages around the site starting in January after the company closed its operations there.

The county’s work to make the site useable turned out to be fortuitous in VinFast’s decision to locate its plant near Sanford because the sufficiency of a local workforce that could be trained through opportunities for that level of training CCCC already provides.

Since the announcement in March, those efforts to clean up the site have quickened and Crumpton was able to tell county commissioners in June that he expects the Marelli site to be ready by August for the construction the state has already approved.

County commissioners also approved an additional $920,000 in their Fiscal Year 2022-23 budget to get the Moore Center, as the Marelli property has been renamed, up and running before the summer of 2023. VinFast has asked that the training program for its workers be operational a full year ahead of the plant’s opening.

Getting this done is a huge challenge for Crumpton’s team, but they have shown already that they are more than up to it.

“There are a lot of moving parts going on internally in terms of what (CCCC) will be getting from the state. They have asked for one of the largest departmental increases we have,” he said during a budget planning session in May. “But I see this as a once in a lifetime opportunity. The Moore Center almost doubles the space of the community college, and it will create many new programs. I don’t see how the commissioners could pass this up.”

City will provide crucial water services

Sanford government is another key player in the project. It will provide extensions of its water and sewer lines to service the megasite, known as Triangle Innovation Point, along the eastern edges of U.S. 1 that lie between Pea Ridge Road at Exit 81 and Christian Chapel Church Road at Exit 84.

Chatham County had lots of available land to make the VinFast project happen, but its lack of adequate water and sewer capacities could have derailed things before they even began to happen, were it not for Sanford’s help.

It has been argued that easy access to plentiful water sources has been one of the biggest strengths in Sanford’s remarkable economic development successes. Four years ago, former Mayor Chet Mann and the city council took what some considered at the time to be nothing more than a waste of taxpayer money by building a water line to the Raleigh Executive Jetport that will now also provide services to the VinFast site.

The northern edge of Lee County, and just across the Deep River into Chatham County, has long been a desert for water and sewer services, and no water means no development. But the city was able to leverage grants from the State of North Carolina, the GoldenLeaf Foundation, and a budget allocation of $3.9 million in 2018 to build water and sewer lines from Sanford to Pittsboro.

Those dollars also paid for a second loop to provide services to the Raleigh Executive Jetport in Lee County and the Moncure area in Chatham, and it is this loop that will provide water and sewer to VinFast. Mann said “it was a huge leap of faith by the city council, but boy, did it ever pay off.”

But the deal negotiated on behalf of the city by Mann and City Manager Hal Hegwer does more than provide Chatham County with the water they need. In exchange for providing water and sewer services, Sanford will receive 20 percent of all property taxes that Chatham County collects from every home, business, or industry that connects to the water line.

Even better, Sanford will continue to receive those funds for the next 50 years after the line goes into service, meaning millions of dollars that will flow annually into the city’s coffers every year for the next half-century.

Mann said just the water and sewer infrastructure needed to connect the new plant site to the city’s system and then over to Pittsboro could exceed $135 million. But whether you call it a stroke of brilliance or just plain luck, the state has agreed to pick up the tab for almost all of it – $132 million. The remaining $3 million in costs will be split between Sanford and Pittsboro, leaving Sanford’s share of the entire project to just $1.5 million.

Sanford has been planning for expansion of its water and sewer services for just this moment. Its system today treats about 12 million gallons of water and turns it into drinking water-grade, with an equal amount of sewage treated and returned to the Cape Fear River in a form that is even cleaner than what is drawn from it daily.

To accommodate the anticipated growth of the city and surrounding regions whose businesses and industries need the water resources to continue to grow, Sanford is planning to expand its water treatment capacities. Both intake and discharge will be expanded to 30 million gallons per day, an increase of 18 million gallons of each day, through grant funding and interlocal agreements.