Athens Site Lands the Big One

//Athens Site Lands the Big One

Athens Site Lands the Big One

After almost 35 years of near misses, the more than 900-acre site known as the Orkin Tract finally landed the big one.

Heavy equipment maker Caterpillar Inc. on Feb. 17 chose the site near Athens, Ga., over many others in Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia for its new manufacturing plant to make small tractors and excavators.

That decision ended more than three decades of manufacturers spurning the site, taking hundreds of millions in investment dollars and thousands of jobs to other states.

“I guess we got to the point of feeling a little jaded, but I always knew it was meant for something big,” said Gerry Whitworth, of Athens-based Whitworth Land Corp., a commercial real estate broker working with the various owners of the site for decades.

The site is now owned by the Orkin family, which sold its pest control company more than 40 years ago and has focused on Georgia real estate investments for years.

In the past, a few manufacturers had the land on the western side of Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties, about 45 minutes east of Atlanta, No. 1 on their list.

But, other Southeast sites always emerged in the final hours to thwart a deal.

This time, Georgia turned the tables.

Most thought Caterpillar was going to choose a site in the Carolinas, closer to its Building Construction Products Division in Cary, N.C.

In fact, Whitworth had low expectations when Caterpillar came to tour the site just before Christmas.

“I was told they just wanted to strike it off the list,” he said.

Instead, Caterpillar liked its location within northeast Georgia’s strong labor pool for manufacturing, the company said.

Caterpillar also wanted access to deepwater East Coast ports at Savannah and Charleston, S.C.

Another plus for Caterpillar management was the option to live in or near Athens, a college town, or somewhere along the Interstate 85 corridor in suburban Atlanta, said Gary Yates, a director within the site selection group of Jones Lang LaSalle Inc.

Georgia also went aggressively after the manufacturing plant.

Caterpillar is eligible for up to $77.7 million in state and local incentives, and that number was comparable to what other states offered, people familiar with the process said.

Caterpillar is shifting production from its plant in Sagami, Japan.

“The site … gives us the physical footprint needed for this facility,” Caterpillar spokesman Jim Dugan said in an e-mail to Atlanta Business Chronicle.

Georgia, along with local officials, also provided a competitive package to support “the complex nature of locating a project like this from Japan to the U.S.,” Dugan said.

Whitworth agreed that, for years, the story of the site was always about the one that got away.

IBM Corp. bought the site in 1980 and the technology giant planned to build a 3 million-square-foot plant that would make computer chips.

Those plans eventually fell through, when the Japanese began to excel with similar technology.

The Orkins later bought the property.

In the 1990s, Mercedes-Benz was close to choosing the site for a new plant, but ultimately chose Tuscaloosa County, Ala.

“Andreas Renschler called and said, ‘You had the No. 1 site, but Alabama bought our business,’ ” Whitworth recalled the Mercedes executive, then head of the Alabama factory, as saying.

In the mid-2000s, the Orkin site was close to landing two big biotech companies. In 2006, Novartis AG was going to build a $400 million flu vaccine plant but chose North Carolina instead. One year later, Solvay Pharmaceuticals was a near-lock to build a $300 million plant on the site but the government’s initial plans to help fund the “bricks and mortar” of the project fell through, Whitworth said.

This time, “It all seemed to come together,” Whitworth said.

In coming months, he will be working with Athens-Clarke and Oconee county officials, who have said they plan to buy the site for about $9.5 million, and then eventually transfer the land to Caterpillar. Whitworth is also expecting a wave of Caterpillar suppliers to locate near the plant.

Some real estate observers believe some of the largest suppliers might build on the Orkin site next to the plant, as suppliers have done at the Kia Motors plant in west central Georgia.

If so, “that’s when the fun really starts,” Whitworth said.

Source: Atlanta Business Chronicle