The Golden LEAF Foundation Board of Directors on April 1 awarded $1.5 million for constructing a 31,000-square-foot building in Wilkes County for commercial or light industrial use to help address the lack of available facilities here.

The funding was awarded to the Wilkes Economic Development Corp. as part of Golden LEAF’s Community-Based Grants Initiative (CBGI), contingent on the Wilkes County commissioners allocating a $1.5 million local match, said Wilkes EDC President LeeAnn Nixon.

The pre-fabricated metal building is planned on 4.8 acres just east of the intersection of N.C. 268 East, Airport Road and River Road-Liberty Grove Road. Purchased by the EDC from Carl Renfro in 2016, the site is behind the Knotville Fire Station and has access from N.C. 268 East and River Road-Liberty Grove Road.

Wilkes County Manager John Yates said the commissioners earlier indicated their support of the grant application and their intentions of approving the $1.5 million match for the building, called the Wilkes Commercial Business Center. They haven’t voted yet.

Yates submitted the proposed building planned as Wilkes County’s top priority in competition for this round of CBGI funding in the Northwest Prosperity Zone counties of Alexander, Alleghany, Ashe, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, McDowell, Mitchell, Watauga and Wilkes.

Yates also submitted a proposed livestock education barn as a Wilkes project when he submitted the initial funding request for the Wilkes Commercial Business Center. The barn wasn’t approved for a full application.

Alleghany’s top request was $1.5 million for the Northwest N.C. Tech Hub, a proposed Wilkes Community College initiative to be based in Sparta. Golden LEAF approved this for submission of a full application but it wasn’t among those approved April 1.

Nixon said, “We’ll meet with the (Wilkes) commissioners now to determine the next step and continue working as a partnership to establish the Wilkes Commercial Business Center.” She said a little over half of the space in the building will be leased to one business and a little less than half to the other.

Nixon said it will target established businesses, either new to Wilkes or already here. She said initial lease rates will be discounted and progress over time to market rates. The building will have 20-foot-tall ceilings and dock doors, she added.

The Golden LEAF press release said the EDC will offer ongoing mentoring, professional legal, accounting and marketing consultation, with additional support from the Wilkes Small Business Center and similar entities.

The press release announcing approval of the $1.5 million grant for the Wilkes Commercial Business Center said 13 companies with a combined 157 new jobs contacted the EDC over the past two years seeking help finding buildings in Wilkes with 20,000 square feet of floor space or less.

Nixon said the EDC’s documentation of these inquiries and its inability to help these companies find the buildings they wanted because they weren’t available in Wilkes helped secure the grant. “They (Golden LEAF) had confidence in us due to these metrics,” she said. She said it normally is hard to get a grant for a building “when you don’t already have a tenant and jobs created.”

Plans for the Wilkes Commercial Business Center were modeled after a Bladen County initiative that resulted in construction of over 20 buildings available for lease to generate economic investments and jobs, with financing secured by using those already constructed as collateral.

Similarly, said Nixon, the goal in Wilkes is for the building planned behind the Knotville Fire Station to be the first of several here constructed and leased. Golden LEAF

EDC and Wilkes County government officials, including the commissioners, met remotely with Bladen County officials and others in Bladen in January to learn about the Bladen initiative.

The $1.5 million for the Wilkes Commercial Business Center is part of $9.6 million awarded by the Golden LEAF board Thursday for 14 CBGI projects in the Northwest Prosperity Zone. CBGI funding is intended for projects ready for implementation and with potential to have a significant impact.

A Golden LEAF press release said no more than three projects and up to $1.5 million are awarded per county under CBGI, but three projects in Burke County received a total of $2.5 million Thursday.

Western Piedmont Community College’s proposed 30,000-square-foot Construction Trades Solution Center in Morganton was the only other CBGI project in the Northwest Prosperity Zone awarded $1.5 million. It will offer degree and certificate training in carpentry, masonry, electrical technologies, HVAC, plumbing and green construction principles.

Also in Burke, Industrial Commons and the Town of Drexel were awarded $500,000 apiece. Industrial Commons is a proposed training initiative to help small and medium textile and furniture manufacturers b more resilient and profitable. Drexel’s plans involve developing a former Drexel Heritage furniture factory into a shovel-ready industrial site.

Ashe County government was awarded $500,000 for an access road, gas line, water main, sewer main and telecommunications infrastructure to support creation of a 41.7-acre industrial park. The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) awarded $1.5 million for building a road within the park.

Alexander County government was awarded $193,776 to extend a sewer line to help a furniture manufacturer at the Alexander Industrial Park in Taylorsville expand with 10 new jobs and $1.2 million in private investment. The ARC awarded $1.5 million for building a road within the park.

Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute was awarded $1.09 million for developing a regional diesel and heavy equipment technology program.

Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture in Boone was awarded $108,000 for personnel, equipment, supplies, marketing and a vehicle to help expand delivery and distribution by developing satellite pickup locations for its food hub online marketplace.

The Golden LEAF Foundation is a nonprofit organization established in 1999 to receive a portion of North Carolina’s funding from the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement with cigarette manufacturers.

Golden LEAF’s 15 board members are appointed by the governor, the president pro tem of the Senate, and speaker of the House.

For 20 years, Golden LEAF has worked to increase economic opportunity in North Carolina’s rural and tobacco-dependent communities through leadership in grant-making, collaboration, innovation and stewardship as an independent and perpetual foundation.

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