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Boeing bidding war: How far will NC go?

As Charlotte officials join the multistate competition for Boeing’s 777X jetliner plant, a site selection consultant who has worked with the company questioned whether North Carolina has the stomach for a full-scale multimillion-dollar bidding war.

And in another wrinkle, Charlotte might not be the only area of the state that’s interested in the new jetliner. Although Charlotte Douglas International Airport and the surrounding area appear to meet all of Boeing’s criteria for the new plant, other North Carolina sites near major airports could also fit the bill.

Prominent among them is the Global TransPark in Kinston, 250 miles east of Charlotte. The industrial shipping complex has an 11,500-foot runway for cargo planes, a rail spur, available manufacturing facilities and undeveloped land. All of those are qualities Boeing wants, which Charlotte also has.

Rudy Lupton, the TransPark’s executive director, referred questions about the Boeing plant to the N.C. Department of Commerce.

“They’re kind of managing the process from North Carolina for all the sites putting together bids,” he said.

Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker didn’t return a call from the Observer seeking comment.

The president of the Greensboro Economic Development Alliance declined to comment on whether his area is vying to bring the project to the Piedmont Triad International Airport. But the GEDA sent officials to a National Business Aviation Association convention in October “with the primary goal of recruiting aviation industry companies to the Triad.”

Chicago-based Boeing said more than a dozen locations have been invited to submit bids, but has declined to confirm or deny any specific locations. The company has given competing locations a Tuesday deadline to submit their proposals.

Even if North Carolina submits a bid, some industry insiders question whether the state has the political will to offer the huge incentive package that will probably be required.

Mark Sweeney, a senior principal with McCallum Sweeney Consulting in Greenville, S.C., said he worked with Boeing officials as they determined where to build their first 787 Dreamliner. They settled in 2003 on the firm’s existing Everett, Wash., plant.

Sweeney, a former official in the S.C. Department of Commerce, wondered whether North Carolina officials would be willing to put up the kind of incentive package it would take to win the 777X plant, which could bring more than 8,000 jobs.

South Carolina put up $570 million in economic incentives to bring a Boeing 787 plant to North Charleston in 2009.

Missouri, one of about a dozen cities and states to which Boeing has sent requests for proposals, convened a special legislative session to approve an incentive package valued at up to $1.7 billion over more than two decades.

“North Carolina has a reputation as being a good state to do business in, with an improved and good set of tools in the incentives toolbox,” Sweeney said. “But there’s some uncertainty associated with the commitment of state leadership in being aggressive in using those tools.”

Many observers in North Carolina have lamented the fact that the state has missed out in recent years on some of the biggest corporate relocation prizes. Last year, Georgia won a Caterpillar plant and 1,400 jobs that the company had considered bringing to a site near Wilmington. Many still point to how North Carolina missed out on BMW and Mercedes plants in the 1990s that went to South Carolina and Alabama, respectively.

One expert said North Carolina has shown admirable restraint in declining to simply pay any price for a corporate relocation plum.

“Having a little hesitancy and a little skepticism isn’t inherently a bad thing,” said Brent Lane, director of the Carolina Center for Competitive Economies at UNC Chapel Hill.

One complication, he added, is that the state is in the midst of revamping its economic development approach. Gov. Pat McCrory is de-emphasizing the seven regional economic development groups in favor of a statewide public-private group. That group, however, hasn’t been unveiled yet, leaving questions about how the three remaining regional groups will work with it.

“Right now is a great time to compete against North Carolina, while we’re in this limbo of reorganization,” Lane said.

Boeing is asking for a generous incentives package. According to documents obtained by the Observer, Boeing is seeking a 300- to 400-acre site. The company wants the land and facilities at little to no cost, along with infrastructure improvements paid for by the state or local governments, tax breaks and accelerated permitting.

The company needs a site next to an airport with rail and highway access.

In return, the winning state could see up to 8,500 manufacturing and support jobs. Boeing is considering three different scenarios for factories. In the smallest one, the Boeing factory builds only the plane’s wings. In the largest scenario, the factory would manufacture the whole jet.

Boeing expects to make a decision on where it will locate production work early next year.

Staff writer Rick Rothacker and the Associated Press contributed.

Frazier: 704-358-5145; Twitter: @ericfraz
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