By Richard Sullins |

The Sanford City Council took the first step Tuesday to move forward a proposal to create what could become the largest industrial park in the county, but it’s going to be a slower process than usual.

The approval process is on hold for at least six more weeks because the city’s Planning Board, which listens to and considers public comments before making a recommendation to the City Council, did not have enough members present for a quorum to conduct its business Tuesday.

City Council meetings are scheduled for the first and third Tuesdays of the month, and the date of the next meeting would have been July 4 were it not for the holiday. That pushes the next possible meeting to July 18 for the rescheduled Planning Board meeting, and a final vote by the council would be possible no earlier than August 1. The calendar cycle can’t be accelerated because of legal requirements for public notifications that must be observed for calling council meetings.

Even so, the council voted unanimously Tuesday to proceed with annexing the property that’s almost 900 acres in size into the city. It’s a request made with regularity by developers who need access to the city’s water and sewage systems so their investments will be viable. It also ensures that the companies who locate their operations there will share in the tax burden that is associated with constructing and maintaining that infrastructure.

The Industrial Park’s specs

To be known as Helix Innovation Park at the Brickyard, the project is a redevelopment of the Lee Brick site located to the north of the intersection of U.S. 1 and U.S. 15-501 between Cotten and Deep River roads. To be comprised of 10 tracts of land that will together total 879.17 acres of land, the property is about 130 acres larger than Central Carolina Enterprise Park (CCEP), currently the county’s biggest industrial site.

Helix Ventures says it intends to use the property to create an advanced manufacturing campus of diverse industries that will attract a mix of both small- and large-scale economic development projects. The preliminary draft plan of the site shows it subdivided into 18 individual pods that would range in size from nine to 133 acres.

The proposed site of the nearly 900-acre Helix Innovation Park at the Brickyard between U.S. 15-501 and U.S. 421.

The owners have requested the rezoning of the 10 tracts having frontage on Hawkins Avenue and Iron Furnace Road from Residential Agricultural, Light Industrial, and Heavy Industrial to a stand-alone conditional zoning district having its own unique conditions. It is this rezoning request that will be the subject of a public hearing on July 18.

Depending on demand, construction of the first site could begin as early as 2024 at an entrance closest to Hawkins Avenue, with subsequent projects filling out the remainder of the properties sequentially from east to west over the next five to 10 years.

The documents also indicate that although most of the land surrounding the new site on its northern, western, and southern boundaries was zoned years ago for either light or heavy industrial use, it has never been developed.

But there are homeowners that would be directly impacted, and two of them came to speak during the public hearing on Tuesday. Neither was supportive.

Vickie Bolling told the council she and her husband back efforts to create new jobs and lift the standard of living within the city, but they also have doubts about Sanford’s ability to keep those jobs here.

“We need a lot of people employed, but I’d like to see how long it would take to get people to work there. Nobody wants to work anymore,” she said.

Like Bolling, David Montgomery said he chose to purchase a 24-acre lot in the area because it was rural at the time and “quiet and full of any kind of wildlife you can imagine.” Montgomery said he “just wanted to be left alone and not have the worst part of any city moved into my backyard.”

Montgomery’s message has been heard by the council many times before as they have considered proposals that would change the nature of a property’s usage.

“There are not many tracts of land this size that are left, but if you keep creating these things, they will be gone, gone, gone. Now, you want to destroy my American dream. Well, I don’t want it,” he said.

Others take a more positive view. Mike Gaster spoke on behalf of the Optimist Club that has maintained a ballfield at the southern end of the proposed development for more than two decades. Gaster spent much time talking with the developers over the past two years on how the property could best be put to use.

He told the council that those experiences increased his confidence that Helix Ventures wants to be a partner in developing the community for years to come. He pointed to their desire to relocate the ballfield away from Hawkins Avenue and the first pods that would see construction as proof of their desire to be good neighbors.

The council also heard from Jonathan Keener of Helix Ventures, the company behind development of the site, and learned that work on the project has been going on under the radar with the Sanford Area Growth Alliance since 2021. Keener explained that the development of the site began with a vision for it that had its origins with community leaders.

The end result, according to Keener, will be a modern park where its uses can assist the community’s efforts to attract the kinds of industry that will further the city’s development. He spoke of sidewalks and trails that would give the park a feel like no other. A park with room for expansion, along with lots of green and open spaces, is something Keener believes could position the city for the same kind of managed growth that other communities have found to be transformative.

A bigger boom, maybe?

If the city does ultimately give its final blessing to Helix Innovation Park, it could be seen as an answered prayer for city and county planners.

As recently as last summer, economic developers were becoming concerned by the low inventory of acreage available in the county to pitch as possible locations to industries looking for large tracts of land to expand. Put simply, if there’s no space available that meets a potential client’s needs, they look elsewhere.

SAGA CEO Jimmy Randolph told The Rant earlier this year electric vehicle companies and their supply chains, as well as some in the life sciences, are now seeking out locations that are 100 acres or more in size, while others like VinFast and WolfSpeed want sites of at least 1,000 acres.

Available space in CCEP, where lots average between 20 and 50 acres, was running out. Without it, it seemed that the final chapter of Sanford’s industrial and economic boom was about to be written.

But just 12 months later, Lee County has grown from one major industrial site to at least four others. In addition to this latest proposal, the city approved a 612-acre site near the Raleigh Executive Jetport last August that will provide more room for industrial projects, as will another 221-acre site just to the east of the airport that will have many of those same capabilities.

Add to those another 140 acres to be developed for industrial use along N.C. 87 near Carolina Trace that were approved last winter, and you have about 1,852 acres of available industrial space that didn’t exist just last year.

That number makes these sites even bigger wins because of their proximity to the 2,150-acre Triangle Innovation Point megasite in Chatham County where VinFast will build electric vehicles and their batteries. Any or all of these industrial campus locations within the city limits could become hosts for supporting companies who are looking to locate close to VinFast’s operations.

Properties of this size are becoming a rarity as the Triangle region continues to grow. Large available spaces suitable for industrial use in the Triangle area have gotten hard to come by, making locations like these in Sanford, near an airport and a major commercial freight line, even more attractive to potential industrial clients looking for a place to put down new roots and in some cases, do so quickly.

And it’s the potential of sites 100 acres or bigger that make the Helix site all the more attractive because of the flexibility it could provide in creating customized spaces for all sizes of development to take place.

A public hearing on how the Helix property, now annexed into the city, should be zoned is tentatively scheduled for July 18. How the City Council votes could be a determining factor in how economic development projects like this one will shape Sanford and Lee County for the next 25 years or more.