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Certification could mean big things for Newton

Newton County was close to seeing 9,000 jobs and a $5 billion investment come to county, if only the timing was a little better.

Jaguar Land Rover was seeking a large piece of property to produce 300,000 cars constructed of aluminum in the fall of 2014. The company was working with site selectors Ernst and Young looking over locations in Europe, Brazil, Singapore, Mexico and Newton County.

The piece of property in Newton County was 2,600 acres located along Hwy. 11 between Interstate 20 and Social Circle near the CSX railroad line. At the time, Ernst and Young noticed some geological outcropping, historical barns and cemeteries still on the property and the fact that due diligence still needed to be done.

That left Newton County as the “bridesmaid” as Dave Bernd, Newton County Vice President of Economic Development puts it, to Slovakia, which won the project.

Fast forward about 18 months and Newton County is in a different place.

The site that Jaguar Land Rover was seeking for a home to its new factory is now vetted by the Georgia Ready for Accelerated Development (GRAD) Site Program and all the due diligence is completed and certified for any company looking to move on a project quickly.

The GRAD certification was granted to Newton County’s megasite, the Historic Heartland site, on May 20. That certification declares that the site meets state and federal requirements such as utilities planning, road and rail accessibility, wetland and stream delineation, a topographic survey and geotechnical investigations have been completed, and other environmental assessments have been done.

Having a GRAD certification means landing a major business becomes a whole lot easier.

“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” Bernd said. “We will be asked specifically [if we are GRAD certified] when a company comes out, and you will not even be considered on a majority of the lists if you are not GRAD certified.”

Bernd said it took his team and Thomas and Hutton, of Savannah, who worked on the certification to complete all the due diligence necessary for the certification. That is 18 months, he said, that a company will not wait.

“A Jaguar Land Rover does not have 18 months to figure out if they can use the site or not,” Bernd said. “What they want to do is buy the property and go. Not wait a year and a half.”

In a post-mortem review of the Jaguar Land Rover site selection, Ernst and Young told Newton County that not having the due diligence completed and not having letters of planned rezoning from agriculture to commercial was the cause of Jaguar Land Rover to look away from Newton County.

Ernst and Young, however, also told Newton County’s economic development staff that the Historic Heartland site is a key piece of property for development in the county.

“They said we probably have the premier megasite in the Southeast with key attributes being rail, ports and workforce all nearby,” Bernd said.

The Historic Heartland site is one of two megasites — a minimum of 50 acres available for development — in Newton County. The other is Stanton Springs, which currently has the Georgia Biotechnical Learning Center and Shire plant located on it. The latter was an initial $1.1 billion investment with 1,500 expected jobs.

Bernd said he would think the Historic Heartland site can continue to draw projects such as Jaguar Land Rover, which would have been $5 billion and 9,000 jobs, or the Kia plant, which is in West Point, Georgia and has 15,000 jobs on the site.

The Historic Heartland site is 991 acres with 700 acres of rail frontage, located in Newton County, Walton County and Social Circle. The land is two different properties owned by Bruce Vineyard and Susan Wahl, who paid for the site certification.

“They really want to leave a legacy to Newton County and to the region,” Bernd said. “They want to create high-paying, high-end jobs that truly give something back to the community.”

Since Halloween, four projects have been turned down on the Historic Heartland site that would have divided the area into smaller industrial sites. That is not what the Newton County Economic Development department is looking for.

“During the Jaguar Land Rover post-mortem all three agencies [that worked with Newton County] said we do not want to break this up into an industrial site,” Bernd said. “What we want to do is turn it into a campus so we can go after [Jaguar Land Rover and Kia type plants]. You just don’t have these types of sites this close to a metropolitan area with this type of acreage left and with 4.3 million people within a 45-minute drive of the site.”