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Secretive Project Cobra awaits Mount Airy vote

Project Cobra is the code name for a potential private investment of $1,969,710 for the consolidation of a warehouse and distribution center located in Surry County that both the city of Mount Airy and the county have been contemplating making incentive offers to.

The board of county commissioners Monday voted unanimously to pass the incentive package of $36,244 spread over five years in performance-based incentives for the as yet to be disclosed company after holding a public hearing as required by statute. Funds for the incentive were identified to come from the county’s general fund.

That hearing was held Monday evening during the meeting of the Surry County Board of Commissioners and had only two participants.

One was Todd Tucker of the Surry Economic Development Partnership who sent his endorsement to Project Cobra. He told the board the existing Surry County employer has 63 employees currently and if the consolidation occurs, it will add 35 new jobs.

“This incentive will keep people working and create new opportunities for others, and add new value to Surry County’s tax record,” Chairman Bill Goins read on Tucker’s behalf.

“It’s always been incumbent on this board to support small business in Surry County,” Vice Chairman Eddie Harris said in support of the measure. “I think small business carries the water from a tax and employment perspective in this nation. The Surry County EDP has done a great job representing the county in negotiating and pursing new business opportunities for our citizens.”

On the identity of the company, all cards are still being held close to the chest. Commissioner Mark Marion said he had no idea who the company in question was before the Monday meeting, and then in the gallery after was overheard saying, “See, I told you we didn’t know.”

Also, under consideration are Alabama and South Carolina as potential sites for the consolidated warehouse and distribution center for Project Cobra. Goins said keeping the “businesses that are already here, here” is of paramount importance to the county’s growth.

One notable local employer with connections Alabama is Altec, founded as the Alabama Truck Equipment Company, which still has its corporate headquarters in Birmingham, Ala. Tucker said he could confirm the company in question is not Altec.

Changes to the way performance-based incentives are offered has made things easier for the county. At one time incentives were often tied to job creation or lengths of time employed as the benchmarks for incentives.

This caused problems Commissioner Van Tucker said as the county had no job in “policing employment status” and making determinations on part-time status versus full, or what to do with an event like the pandemic. “Most local governments have given up on tying these incentives to employment and retention of employment.”

“What do we have to lose? I think it’s a good deal for everybody and we aren’t spending money ahead of the game,” he said. “I think it’s the best kind of proposed incentive package since I’ve seen since I’ve on the board. I don’t see how you can lose on this kind of deal.”

Harris said the incentive package was a good opportunity for the county and was more palatable than some past packages. He recalled the wild west days when he came on to the board. “Since my time on the board, incentives have been all over the place.”

“When I came on there was a package of roughly $9 to 10 million for a company in Elkin. These incentives are typically always performance based now and what that means is unless this company performs, and does what they say, they don’t receive the taxpayers’ money,” the ardent fiscal conservatism noted.

At the public hearing local resident J.T. Hinson said he was rising to speak but had no knowledge of what he was speaking on, about; for, or against. “I don’t know what the purpose of this hearing is,” he said in opening.

Hinson meant not to sound glib, rather to raise a concern on secrecy. With two ads placed in the Mount Airy News legal ads announcing the hearing and news breaking only late last week of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners discussion on Project Cobra incentives, Hinson said, “It’s interesting to ask people to weigh in on something we don’t know about.”

He expressed concern about the potential pitfalls of luring a company with incentives which he said beget bribery and blackmail. Further he wondered if the existing Surry County employer was eyeing the exit door if incentives are not approved.

“I don’t have enough information to make an informed decision,” Hinson said, adding, “I suspect the decision has already been made.”

Commissioner Tucker addressed the air of secrecy around the project and the undisclosed company at the heart of Project Cobra. He said business needs dictate a bit of secrecy from the eyes of competitors.

He offered, “These people don’t want to let their competitors know what their strategic plan is going forward. They may have a competitor across the street and if they let loose their hand… if the secret is out of the bag, the other party may move first. For competitive reasons, sometimes these deals blow up.”

Mount Airy commissioners voted to move ahead and schedule a public hearing on the incentive proposal for Project Cobra at their next meeting on Nov. 17 at 6 p.m. in the council chamber of the Municipal Building on South Main Street.



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