The Chesterfield Economic Development Authority has pulled back on its proposal to develop the so-called “Matoaca Mega Site,” but it is not giving up on the project it has hoped would lure a major employer to the region.
The EDA board voted unanimously in a special meeting Thursday to withdraw its application to rezone the 1,700-acre site southwest of Chester for an industrial megasite aimed at attracting an auto maker or other “advanced manufacturer.”
Board members cited public opposition to the project and scrutinized how the proposal has been rolled out since last fall. But they maintained that the county should still consider the site as an economic development opportunity and encouraged the board of supervisors to exercise an option to purchase and secure it.
“Gaining control of the site will allow time to engage members of the community to discuss potential uses for the property,” the EDA said in a statement released after the meeting. “The EDA hopes this community engagement process can form a greater consensus regarding the appropriate use for the property in the future.”
The EDA has said purchasing the property would cost about $15.5 million. It estimated it would cost $200 million to develop the site and build a facility, with those costs funded by a mix of federal, state, local and private funds.
The EDA had expected the site’s size and location would attract an advanced manufacturer that could create thousands of jobs and add more than $1 billion to the local economy. Once developed, the EDA said it would create about 3,000 direct jobs with salaries averaging $70,000, $5.5 million to $11 million annually in net revenue to the county, and about $6 billion in total economic output.
Proponents also said the project would have significantly less impact on roads and other infrastructure than the residential use currently allowed for the property, which was previously zoned for a 5,000-home mixed-use development that never materialized.
“I don’t believe there are many people in this room who believe that 5,000 homes is the proper use for that property,” said board member John Cogbill, a retired McGuireWoods attorney.
“It’s unfortunate the way this process rolled out. While everyone’s intentions were good and we were excited about the opportunity of having a major industrial user come to the site right away, we did not have answers to the questions,” Cogbill said. “Unfortunately, by the time we had the answers, and I believe we had good answers, the answers were lost in the confusion and concerns that had already been manifested.”
Board chairman Art Heinz, president of Heinz Insurance and Financial Services, took personal exception to how the project had been perceived by the public.
“As well-intended as this process has been, it has somehow or another taken a perception of something different. And personally, that troubles me,” Heinz said. “It troubles me that I spend my time to come in here to try do something good for everyone here, and yet there’s criticism.
“While I understand aspects of it, the EDA serves to really spur economic development in the county, and that’s what we’ve tried to do here. Maybe we didn’t do it in the right way, maybe we did it too fast, we acknowledge that, but I do want everyone to know that we hear your voices, and that’s why we’re doing what we did today.”
Thursday’s vote followed a closed session that lasted over a half-hour, leaving about two dozen county residents opposed to the project waiting in a hallway. The group, many of them wearing “No Megasite” stickers, passed the time in part by holding a group prayer.
Soon after the doors were opened and the meeting continued in open session, their prayer appeared answered, as vice chairman and longtime board member John Ruckart motioned to withdraw the rezoning request that the EDA had filed with the county in March.
The EDA had held two series of public meetings on the project since last fall, enlisting former state commerce and trade secretary Todd Haymore of law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth to help present and explain the project.
It also had presented the project in a work session last month with the county planning commission, who grilled EDA director Garrett Hart and consultants for several hours about particulars of the project that they said could not be fully known until a user for the site had been attracted and identified.
Most recently, county supervisor Chris Winslow called for a review of the EDA’s functions and operations in light of the proposal, according to a report by the Chesterfield Observer.
The heightened scrutiny appeared to weigh on EDA board members, some of whom expressed resolve in seeing the project through.
Ruckart, who has served on the board for two decades, cited projects such as St. Francis Medical Center, the Amazon fulfillment center and the Niagara Bottling facility in Meadowville Technology Park as EDA success stories.
“We need to look at what is best for the county and what is the best for your future,” Ruckart told those in attendance. “I’d like to leave that as part of my legacy as serving on the board for 23 years. I was going to leave now, but I would like to stick around and see this happen – at some point in time, the right way, with your input and so forth.”
After the meeting adjourned, opponents in attendance applauded the board’s action. Mike Uzel, of citizens group Bermuda Advocates for Responsible Development, also addressed the board.
“I understand there’s desire for economic development in Chesterfield, and we have never been against that,” Uzel said. “What we’ve been against most of all in these seven, eight months is the lack of citizen involvement in this process from the start. That’s what needs to change.
“When we’re told that we’re going to do this instead of asking how can we do this, that’s where I feel that the board has made their mistake, and I hope that will change as a result of this whole process,” he said.