A Georgia entertainment company has ambitious plans for the shuttered Philip Morris USA plant in Concord, with hopes of transforming the old cigarette factory into a campus with a movie production studio, a water park, restaurants and an electric-car manufacturer.

Terry Keeney, president of Stargate Worldwide Corp., said the project could create 4,000 jobs for Cabarrus County, which has struggled with high unemployment especially since Philip Morris shut down last year. Keeney also hopes to make use of a soon-to-expire tax benefit from last year's federal stimulus package.

But skeptics say that such a huge undertaking is always risky, and even more so in a recession.

"It's really tempting when the economy's struggling and you have this huge piece of property that's just sitting there and reminding you of what the county used to be, (to go along) when somebody says, 'Hey, I've got this great plan,'" said Joe Coletti, a fiscal policy expert at the conservative Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation. "...But in this case you are pledging part of the county's reputation on this, and that's where the county needs to be taking a look and saying, 'Does this really make sense?'"

Keeney said he understands that it's difficult for outsiders to envision what the Carolina USA Performance Park would be.

"I think once they come and start putting in applications and seeing the final drawings, they'll just be thrilled," he said in an interview. "We designed this with the community in mind."

Keeney said his company is under a confidentiality agreement with Philip Morris and can't talk about details of the financing, including the lenders, until after the deal closes. He described his plan as a $750 million project, including the property. He hopes Stargate can secure $100 million in what would essentially be a lower-interest loan made possible by the federal stimulus bill. Cabarrus County would play an administrative role in securing the $100 million in bonds, but county, state and federal officials say that the bonds' private investors - not the government - would be on the hook if the project fails.

County officials and commissioners said they don't know much about Stargate, but they plan to learn more. Because county money isn't directly involved in the bonds, they said, they haven't examined the company as closely as they would if it were asking for direct incentives.

"I've looked at their website, I've heard the guy (Keeney) talk, I don't know a whole lot more than that," said John Day, the Cabarrus County manager. But, "we're treating it a little differently than we would if they were" asking for incentives.

John Cox, president of Cabarrus Economic Development, said he is "cautiously optimistic" about the project.

Keeney said he has commitments for tenants for about 70 percent of the existing Philip Morris buildings. The massive site includes 2.4 million square feet of manufacturing space. Eventually, he said, the Carolina USA Performance Park would include auto-parts manufacturers, an electric-car manufacturer, a candy manufacturer, restaurants, and movie and production studios, including a 3,500-seat broadcast theater.

"Our whole purpose," Keeney said, "is to get people working." The diversity of the park's businesses will enable it to withstand any economic cycle, he said.

But Coletti, of the John Locke Foundation, said he's not sure the combinations make sense.

"If you have a down cycle of the economy, people are going to cut back on electric vehicles, they're going to cut back on travel to water parks, they're going to cut back on movies," he said. "I'm not sure where the diversification comes from."

Coletti said that other projects have started with a bang and then failed to meet expectations. Roanoke Rapids, for example, had to sell the Roanoke Rapids Theatre just a couple of years after it was built. Dell Computers received millions in state and local incentives for building a computer-assembly plant in Forsyth County six years ago, then announced last year that it was shutting down.

From The Charlotte Observer
11-5-2010