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New marketing team tackles sale of Concord’s old Philip Morris USA campus

Anne Johnson and her colleagues at CBRE, the Los Angeles-based commercial real estate firm, have just gotten one whopper of a property to sell.

We’re talking about a facility with 2.3 million square feet of Class A manufacturing, office and warehouse space, not to mention another 1 million square feet of distribution space spread across eight buildings. All this on 2,023 acres in Concord.

We’re talking, of course, about the old Philip Morris USA campus. It has sat dormant since the tobacco giant shut the site down in 2009, taking more than 1,000 jobs and one of the region’s most significant manufacturing operations with it. People have been speculating ever since about what will replace it.

Jones Lang LaSalle of Chicago initially handled the marketing of the property. An official there said in 2009 that more than 100 companies, including manufacturing, publishing and redevelopment firms, had expressed interest in the site, but many were concerned at the time about their own financial health in the midst of a recessionary environment.

Now the CBRE team will take a crack at it, led by Anne Johnson, Patrick Gildea and Bryan Crutcher of the firm’s Charlotte office. Steve Lehr, head of the firm’s Land Services Group, and Craig Reicher, vice chairman in the firm’s New York office, round out the team.

“We’re very excited that we’re the agents now,” said Johnson, a senior vice president. “It’s fully vacant and ready to roll.”

The Philip Morris site is the 600-pound elephant of the local economic development scene. Every so often, I’ll hear rumors about some corporation or other sniffing around the site and thinking about buying it, but those haven’t turned into anything substantial enough to make headlines.

(The only news the campus has made in recent years has been as a site where production teams from the first “Hunger Games” movie and the Showtime television series “Homeland” temporarily set up shop.)

Have there been any actual corporate suitors lately, or has that just been the rumor mill working overtime?

“It’s been our understanding that there have been some very interested parties,” Johnson said, “but for whatever reason, no deals went through.”

Part of the reason why it’s been sitting there so long, she added, is that it went up for sale as the bottom was falling out of the real estate market. Things are looking brighter on that front.

“The real estate market is bouncing back,” she told me, “and folks are becoming more and more bullish about opening new facilities.”

Another logical explanation: The site is just too big for most firms. MetLife, which made the year’s biggest economic development splash locally when it announced plans this spring to move its U.S. retail hub to Ballantyne, needed 340,000 square feet.

The Philip Morris buildings contain nearly seven times that much space.

Johnson said her firm’s thinking is that a manufacturer is the most likely buyer. Since there’s so much land out there, she added, the property could also appeal to government contractors or aeronautics companies that might put a high value on privacy.

As for the marketing strategy, the CBRE team plans to do the things you’d expect, like put up a website and contact site consultants, commercial real estate agents and corporations around the country. Since Norfolk Southern has rail lines into the property, Johnson said CBRE has also decided to contact the railroad company’s biggest shipping clients, too.

The agents are also adding another wrinkle. Johnson said now that the property has been fully decommissioned by Philip Morris, they’ve been having local business, political and economic development leaders stop by to tour the site.

The idea is to enlist as many helpers as possible to get the word out. And it’s certainly in the interests of Concord, Cabarrus County and the whole Charlotte region to find a viable replacement for Philip Morris, which was once the county’s largest taxpayer.

“To make this work, to attract a group significant enough to need this big a facility, it’s going to require all of us working together,” Johnson said. “It’s going to take a team effort.”