UNION COUNTY — What do the Belk and Dollar General distribution facilities and the ESAB, Gestamp, and Gonvauto manufacturing facilities have in common?
One of the things they have in common is that the location of these facilities and, in some cases, their subsequent expansions, have contributed to the growth and diversification of Union County’s economy.
Another thing they have in common is that each were assigned a code name that concealed their identity from the general public, often for months at a time, while the process that facilitated their location and/or expansion was under way.
The most recent example of this was “Project Southern,” the code name assigned to the expansion of the Belk eCommerce distribution and fulfillment center in Jonesville.
In May, Union County Council voted to approve a resolution and an ordinance supporting the planned expansion of the facility.
For nearly two months, the identity of the company would remain concealed behind the Project Southern code name, even though some details about the project, such as the amount of investment involved ($47 million) and the number of jobs that would be created (20) were made known early on.
Project Southern was finally revealed to be Belk in a statement released by Gov. Nikki Haley’s office in early July announcing that the project was the addition of more than 345,000 square feet to the company’s eCommerce distribution and fulfillment center on US 176 in the Jonesville area.
Even though the amount of the investment and the number of jobs created were known since May, the true identity of Project Southern remained a mystery to the general public until the announcement by Haley’s office.
Why? Why the need for secrecy? Why was it necessary to keep the company’s identity under wraps even though some very pertinent information was revealed from the beginning?
Union County Development Board Executive Director Andrena Powell-Baker said that companies need to keep their identity confidential for several reasons during the negotiation process regarding their plans to locate a facility in a community and/or expand it.
“One of the primary reasons is they don’t want their competition to know they are entering the market,” Powell-Baker said. “Another important reason is the company could be releasing new technology and don’t want their competition to know their plans.”
Powell-Baker said that other reasons companies prefer to keep their plans confidential while in negotiations is include not wanting to be contacted by contractors and suppliers during that process. Another reason is they may be concerned that if brokers or land owners prematurely learn about their interest in an area they may inflate their prices or simply refuse to negotiate.
Companies also may not want their employees to know about their plans until they are ready to reveal it to them.
“Sometimes their employees don’t know about the project,” Powell-Baker said. “They haven’t had those internal discussions yet.”
Powell-Baker said another reason that companies want to keep their identity secret is that even as they are in negotiations they are often still making decisions about the proposed project that could affect its outcome. Only after those decisions are made and the negotiations reach a satisfactory conclusion is a company prepared to have its identity revealed.
Nor is it just the companies involved that want their identity concealed until the process is completed. Powell-Baker said that public entities involved in local economic development have their own reasons for keeping the identity of a new industry or the expansion of an existing one under wraps.
“We don’t want to be premature with announcing projects because negotiations could break down,” Powell-Baker said. Another reason is we don’t want to get a reputation for not being confidential or trustworthy.”
Powell-Baker said that another reason is that the company may ask the public entities they are dealing with to sign non-disclosure agreements which legally prevent them from revealing the company’s identity until the negotiation process is complete.
There is also the issue of competition from other counties for the companies Union County is attempting to recruit.
“We wouldn’t want other counties to know what incentives we’re offering,” Powell-Baker said.