WRAL Investigates

Proposed auto research facility stuck in idle

Various problems have stalled development of an automotive research center in Northampton County, and federal investigators are now looking into the center.

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GARYSBURG, N.C. — More than two years after North Carolina, Northampton County and other groups committed $19.8 million in taxpayer funds for a proposed automotive research facility, the project remains stalled, and federal investigators are looking into it.

A 1,000-acre tract near Garysburg has been earmarked for the North Carolina Center for Automotive Research, or NCCAR. Northampton County officials already spent $1.8 million to buy the site.

State lawmakers pledged $14.8 million toward the facility, while the state Department of Transportation agreed to spend $1.4 million to build an access road to the site. GoldenLEAF, the foundation that spends money from the national tobacco litigation settlement on rural development projects, offered a $1 million grant, and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole has supported legislation to provide $1 million in federal funding to the center.

Like neighboring Halifax County, which built a music theater, and Lenoir County, which invested heavily in the Global TransPark, Northampton County is banking on the taxpayer-backed automotive testing facility to rev the local economy.

NCCAR Chief Operating Officer Simon Cobb said the center's state-of-the-art engineering labs and road courses will help the automotive industry test fuels, batteries and designs.

"What makes it particularly interesting is the auto industry is in a terrible quandary," Cobb said. "The initial hope was that this would be operational now, some time ago. But the reality is you can't build anything until you have the permits in place."

The center is expected to open in September 2009.

After lining up the funding, NCCAR hit a pothole. First, the nonprofit board pushed out Dick Dell, the man who came up with the idea for the research center.

"It's politics, pure and simple. The folks up there wanted to be able to control it," said Dell, president of Advanced Vehicle Research Center in Raleigh, which is studying alternative fuels and battery power for plug-in hybrid vehicles.

When he floated the idea, Dell said he envisioned his company partnering with the public nonprofit to recruit more private companies and jobs. Initial estimates said the center could create 700 jobs.

NCCAR also lost its lone client, Lotus Engineering, which pulled out at least until the project is complete. When Lotus backed out, the state and the GoldenLEAF put their grants on hold.

"If you build it, they will come does not work. We've proven that time and time again," said Dell, who said he has talked with federal investigators about what went wrong.

"There's a lot of interest there as far as the use of state and, potentially, federal funding," he said.

In addition to Northampton County's land purchase, another $1.4 million has been spent to date on the center for site development and planning, Cobb said.

"We've been deliberately quite modest and candid about what (the center) will achieve," he said. "I know what it will achieve, but I'm not going to say it publicly because I'm going to make sure it happens."