Written by Jason Sandford
Sizing up the Henderson County town of Mills River by a quick glance at a map can be deceiving.
At 22 square miles, 7,000 residents, and an abundance of farm land, Mills River, located in Henderson County just south of Asheville, is a humble hamlet. Locals who wanted to fend off encroaching growth and possible annexation from other nearby cities formally incorporated the town just 13 years ago. Its roots are firmly planted in its agricultural past, but a town hall built for business and amenities such as a rolling 50-acre park (also still being developed) signal the town is evolving.
What town maps and topography don’t show is a powerful economic engine that has roared to life over the past few years. Since Sierra Nevada Brewing Company announced it would build its East Coast Brewery in a unique Mills River industrial park in 2012, a variety of companies have pledged to create more than 700 jobs and invest more than $355 million in the town. One of those—the announcement by GF Linamar, LLC, of an auto parts manufacturing plant—ranks as the biggest in Henderson County’s history in at least the past 60 years, and perhaps ever, according to local economic developers.
Andrew Tate, president and CEO of the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development (HCPED), says simply that the area is the new employment center of Western North Carolina, one that will also be tied closely tied to Upstate South Carolina and its jobs and manufacturing base over time. That area, which encompasses Greenville, Spartanburg, and Greer, is home to automaker BMW’s largest plant; BMW has said that access to highways, rail lines, and sea ports were keys to investing in the location. In parallel fashion, easy proximity to transportation pathways—to that list, add an airport that’s nearby—help make Mills River attractive to companies like GF Linamar and the automotive industry (and its suppliers) in general.
Mills River Town Manager Jeff Wells points out that none of this has been exactly random, citing the aforementioned 2003 incorporation as another factor in shaping the town’s appeal. “I would say that the residents of our community wanted to be able to decide their own future,” explains Wells. “I think the growth potential of Mills River was well recognized by not only its residents but also by the county and nearby towns as well. So it was imperative that our community have the ability to maintain our principles of protecting agriculture, being business friendly, and also maintaining low density housing policies.”
As a condition of incorporation, Mills River was required, under state law, to submit a plan to offer at least four core municipal services, out of a potential eight, The options selected were police, fire, planning and zoning, and street lighting, with the services of course being paid for via taxation.
It is worth noting that the Mills River incorporation process was not automatically a done deal. In fact, a May 15, 2003, “Proposed Incorporation of the Town of Mills River” report to the North Carolina General Assembly, drafted by the Joint Legislative Commission on Municipal Incorporations, had initially concluded that while Mills River met certain specific standards required by General Statutes (for example, the town had to get the “express approval” of Asheville, so it asked Asheville to adopt a resolution to that effect), one of those standards regarding urban development had not yet been met, so the Commission did “not recommend incorporation of the area as the Town of Mills River.” Ultimately, matters were worked out, and House Bill 232, sponsored by 117th House District Representative Carolyn Justus (and originally accompanied by Senate Bill 287, sponsored by 48th Senate District Senator Tom Apodaca), passed during the 2003-04 legislative session, allowing Mills River to incorporate in June of 2003.
As a condition of incorporation, Mills River was required, under state law, to submit a plan to offer at least four core municipal services, out of a potential eight, to residents (i.e., taxpayers), by the third year of its incorporation; those eight are police protection, fire protection, solid waste collection or disposal, water distribution, street maintenance, street construction or right-of-way acquisition, street lighting, and zoning. The options Mills River selected were police, fire, planning and zoning, and street lighting, with the services of course being paid for via taxation.
Earlier this year there was some controversy regarding Mills River’s original choice to share the Henderson County sheriff’s department with the county in order to satisfy the police protection part of the requirements. According to the Hendersonville Lightning, the county was on the verge of pulling out of the agreement because the amount of money it was collecting from the town was not covering the county’s costs; as a result, the town was “exploring either starting a police department or getting into the garbage business to meet the core service requirement.”
As a survey of residents determined that law enforcement was deemed a higher priority than garbage collection for the town, an agreement was eventually reached whereby the county would continue to provide deputy coverage for Mills River for another three years, although in the third year the cost to the town would be considerably higher, by an estimated seven times what it is paying now. The Hendersonville Lightning noted in a subsequent report, “Mills River taxpayers are facing a whopping increase of 12 cents per $100 valuation — an extra $360 a year for a home valued at $300,000. If the council adopts the budget as currently drafted, the town tax rate will spike from 2.24 cents to 9 cents per $100 valuation. The fire tax rate is also 9 cents.”
As things stand, however, the tax rate in Mills River is still considered relatively low, 18 cents per $100 valuation, making it an attractive proposition for both homeowners and businesses.
Town Manager Wells adds that it’s speculative as to what might have been the outcome of the incorporation process had the current annexation rules, which were amended in 2012 by the General Assembly, been in place back in 2003, when incorporation of Mills River was viewed by many as a necessary defensive move. “It’s obviously a very different environment [now] in regards to annexation law than a decade before,” he says, additionally noting, “but there are no risks [at the moment] to us losing our incorporation status. I am not familiar with a scenario where that could happen.”
Other parts of Western North Carolina can boast a hive of small businesses, or a plethora of health care or tourism jobs. But in Mills River, it’s a mix of brewers (both beer and cider), agri-businesses, and high-tech metals and plastic manufacturers.
In July Smart Products, Inc., which uses injection molding technology to make plastic valves and pumps, announced it was moving its business from the West Coast to Mills River, where it plans to build a 30,000-sq.-ft. center for manufacturing and design, as well as its executive offices. The company said it would spend $3.2 million on the move and create 26 new jobs.
“Henderson County and the town of Mills River have showcased the resources we need to continue producing our product and stay competitive in the industry,” Mark Jernigan, Smart Products’ CEO, said in a prepared statement.
The resources noted by the business executive are easy to identify: flat land for construction, easy access to East Coast markets via Interstate 26 and the steadily growing Asheville Regional Airport, low taxes, and a good quality of life. Most observers of the region agree that Mills River has them all.
“The number one asset is that we have a lot of land available in large tracts,” says Town Manager Wells, noting that Broadpointe and Ferncliff industrial parks on the north end of town rank as the hottest locations for activity. But buildable land abounds.
As suggested, the town’s tax rate, at just 18 cents per $100 of valuation, is particularly attractive to companies. It’s one of the lowest in the region. The town’s location in the middle of the East Coast makes it attractive to distributors. And its central location between Brevard, Asheville, Hendersonville, and Greenville, South Carolina, makes it a desirable place for workers, Wells adds. A housing policy that specifies minimum lot size in the town should be about three-quarters of an acre and local schools with high rankings for student achievement add to the quality of life.
“It all makes us very competitive,” Wells says.
The town is being deliberate on another front that leaders know is critical to economic development: those intangible “quality of life” attractions. Town officials recently surveyed residents about services and amenities, and they’re continuing to develop a 50-acre park that Wells says they are “quite proud of.” With greenway trails, tennis courts, playgrounds already built, and future plans for baseball, softball, and soccer fields, the Mills River park literally offers something for everyone. Kayakers and canoe paddlers can also tap into the Mills River through access points.
“I think parks and recreation gets undersold a lot of times for the amount of economic development that it can bring,” Wells says. “We think we have one of the best.”
The Industrial Park
Mills River was on a path for economic development success long before the town was incorporated, says Tate of the HCPED. That’s because economic development officials have long nurtured relationships with property owners who one day decide to develop their land.
It happened with Broadpointe Industrial Park in the mid-1990s. The area was home to a dairy farm before it was converted into a center for light industrial activity. The family that owned the farm approached economic development officials and said they wanted to develop their property in a way that provided, as Tate puts it, “good, clean, well-paying jobs.”
Broadpointe was born. Businesses such as Federal Express, Pepsi, auto parts company Continental Teves, pressure-sensitive label supplier Raflatac, polymer component maker Raumedic [see sidebar], and wine/spirits distributor Empire Distributing all landed there, Tate said, and a precedent was set.
So when the owners of a beautiful and unique tract of land along the Mills River known as Ferncliff approached town officials, economic developers were ready.
The heirs of the Westfeldt family came to town leaders in the mid-2000s about creating a second industrial park across the French Broad River from Broadpointe. Family members had owned land in the area for nearly 150 years, and they wanted to develop it under specific restrictions. Family member Vaughan Fitzpatrick asked the town to annex 262 acres and work began on crafting an agreement on developing the new industrial park.
“We had a shared vision and we built a relationship around our common interests,” says Tate. “The family wanted to find companies that provided good-paying jobs, but also companies that had similar values in terms of sustainability and land stewardship.” Local officials worked with the family, and after going through six or seven versions of a written agreement, all sides finally agreed to certain restrictions built around those shared values so that the land could be developed.
The town annexed Ferncliff Park in 2009. “That gave us a unique industrial park, one that may not have a peer on the East Coast,” says Tate. Adds Fitzpatrick, a hint of pride to his voice, “We were the first property to be voluntarily annexed in Mills River.”
The next step was to find companies willing to locate in the park. After several misses, economic developers landed Sierra Nevada. It was a remarkable win.
In 2012 officials with the California-based beer maker announced they would create 95 full-time jobs (with an average wage of $41,526, plus benefits) and invest $107.5 million over five years to build their new brewery. CEO Ken Grossman said at the time that his company looked at more than 200 sites before settling on Ferncliff Park. That site was perfect because of its focus on sustainability, native landscaping, and environmental stewardship, qualities the company prizes, Grossman and local officials said. (Prized qualities, indeed: Earlier this year, Sierra Nevada’s Mills River facility became the first American production brewery to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’s Platinum Certification, the highest tier offered by the U.S. Green Building Council. The certification rates and recognizes sustainable design and a building’s environmental performance.)
The Big Win
The crown jewel of area economic development landed in Mills River in February.
Henderson County officials announced that GF Linamar, LLC, a manufacturer of light-weight powertrain, driveline, and structural components for the automotive industry, would spend $217 million to build a new plant in Ferncliff Park. The company, which is a joint venture between Georg Fischer AG and Linamar Corporation, said it would hire 350 employees over the next five years and pay an annual average wage of $47,738.
Local officials were ecstatic about the GF Linamar win, but they’re not resting. Tate says he and his colleagues regularly field calls from prospective clients.
“The location is ideal for us,” Yves Serra, CEO of GF Linamar, said at the time, noting the proximity to Interstate 26.
Linamar, which is based in Canada (Georg Fischer AG is located in Switzerland), first announced an area presence in 2012 when company officials said they would spend $75 million to build a plant in Arden in southern Buncombe County and hire 250 workers. Since then, the company announced the addition of another 150 jobs and a $115 million expansion of its facility off Hendersonville Road.
Grading on the Ferncliff Park location of GF Linamar is underway, with production there scheduled to begin in 2017. The HCPED’s Tate says that the company’s investment in Mills River is the biggest economic development project in Henderson County since GE Lighting arrived in the county in 1955.
The GF Linamar highlights the type of companies that are “really driving the tax base and our employment economy,” according to Tate, who notes that while big-name breweries often get a lot of attention, it’s the highly technical plastics and metals manufacturers that are the core sector for Mills River.
Another example of just such a company was Raumedic AG’s 2015 announcement that it would buy a 10-acre site in Broadpointe Industrial Park. The German company, which manufactures components used in the medical and pharmaceutical industries, said it would build a 60,000-sq.-ft. building for its first United States manufacturing facility. The facility includes a $10.6 million state-of-the-art clean room operation.
Raumedic CEO Martin Bayer took note of the impact of the cluster of manufacturing businesses, saying in a statement, “For us, Henderson County provides an experienced and skilled workforce and the ideal business environment for our investment.”
Other businesses are growing and locating in Mills River as well. American Quality Foods just doubled the size of its building and added 20 workers, Tate notes. He adds that Gaia Herbs, headquartered in Brevard, recently bought a 60,000-sq.-ft. greenhouse in Mills River; the expansion is expected to represent a $5 million capital investment and generate in excess of 25 new jobs.
Local officials were ecstatic about the GF Linamar win, but they’re not resting. Tate says he and his colleagues regularly field calls from prospective clients.
“We have good, steady activity,” he says, “and we don’t see it slowing down.”
Among the sources used in preparing this story:
Legislative Commission report: http://bit.ly/29Wc6Us
UNC incorporation report: http://unc.live/29NUVVt
Senate Bill 287: http://bit.ly/29DuF9
House Bill 232: http://bit.ly/2a9qQBx
NC GA Session Law 2003-242 (HB 232): http://bit.ly/2auXhcI
An Economy To Grow In
Here’s a quick look a few of the big economic development announcements in Mills River over the past four years.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co: The Colorado-based beer brewer announced in 2012 that it would invest $107.5 million over five years and create 95 full-time jobs that paid an annual average wage of $41,526. (Economic development officials say Sierra Nevada has already exceeded those hiring and investment numbers.) Location: Ferncliff Park
GF Linamar, LLC: The manufacturer (a combination of Swiss and Canadian companies) of motor vehicle components announced in February 2016 that it would invest $217 million in building and equipment over seven years, and the creation of 350 jobs with an average wage of $47,738 per year. Location: Ferncliff Park
Raumedic, Inc.: The German manufacturer of polymer components used in the medical and pharmaceutical industries announced in 2015 that it would invest $27 million over five years and create 172 jobs with an average annual salary of $55,419. Location: Broadpointe Industrial Park
Tri-Hishtil: A collaboration of three companies in the U.S., Israel, and Italy announced in 2014 that it was buying 42 acres of land in Mills River from the Van Wingerden plant nursery. (The company annually produces in excess of 80 million plants.) The cost was $2 million. The company said it planned to hire 125 employees, but didn’t announce an average annual wage. Location: School House Road in Mills River
Bold Rock: In 2014, the Virginia-based cider maker announced a potential $8 million investment and the creation of 50 new jobs when it announced it would open a manufacturing facility and tasting room to complement its flagship cidery. The company initially bought 10 acres in Broadpointe Industrial Park, but later, in 2015, purchased a 22,500-square-foot building at a different location, citing “accelerating demand” for its products that necessitated boosting production sooner. Location: School House Road in Mills River
Smart Products, Inc.: The maker of injection-molded plastic valves and pumps used in a variety of business sectors (automotive, food, beverage, medical) announced in July 2016 that it would relocate its California business to Mills River, build a 30,000-square-foot building and invest $3.2 million. It would bring with it 26 new jobs. Location: Fanning Fields Road, near the entrance to Broadpointe Industrial Park
Mills River Info
Population: 7,162 (2015). One-year change: 1.5 percent or 109 people (U.S. Census)
Size: 22 square miles
Location: Henderson County, with close proximity to Pisgah National Forest, the Asheville Regional Airport, and N.C. Highways 280 and 191.
Public schools: Mills River Elementary School, Glenn Marlow Elementary School, Rugby Middle School, and West Henderson High School
Henderson County Demographics
Labor Force: 47,674
Unemployment Rate: 4.1% (June, 2016)
High School Graduate or Higher: 67,162
Bachelor Degree or Higher: 21,182
Henderson County Land Area: 372.95 square miles
2011 Median Home Value: $190,700
2013 Proj. Per Capita Personal Income: $25,859
2013 Proj. Median Household Income: $47,465
2013 Median Age: 46
Average Work Commute Time: 21 minutes
Top Employers in Henderson County
Henderson County Public Schools
Margaret R. Pardee Memorial Hospital
Park Ridge Health
Ingles Markets, Inc.
Wal-Mart Associates, Inc.
Mertior Heavy Vehicle Systems, Inc.
Continental Automotive Systems, Inc.
GE Lighting Solutions
Blue Ridge Community College
Mountain Bean Growers, Inc.
UPM Raflactac Inc.
Henderson County Accolades
*Henderson County has the lowest ad valorem tax rate in the Asheville MSA and 18th lowest in the state.
*Henderson County has no unionized manufacturing labor; NC is least unionized state in the nation.
*The Henderson County Public Schools System ranks 8th among the top NC Public Schools and in the Top 10 SAT scores in North Carolina.
*Lowest crime rate for a community with a population greater than 100,000; according to the State Bureau of Investigation’s Annual Summary Report of 2014 Uniform Crime Reporting Data, from 2013 to 2014 the crime rate declined from 2,210.9 to 1,976.7 per 100,000 persons.
*Recipient of Expansion Solutions Magazine’s 2009 Award of Excellence in the automotive industry.
*Business NC Magazine’s Small Business of Year (2005, 2010) from Henderson County
*Ranked #13 of 91 “Medium-Sized Cities” 2012 Best Cities for Job Growth, Forbes.com May 2012
*Ranked #2 in Best Cities to Live in North Carolina, CreditDonkey.com, 2014
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