HICKORY – State Sen. Andy Wells (R-Hickory) is drawing attention for a newsletter on his campaign website in which he attacks the N.C. Commerce Department, accusing the agency of giving $2.5 million in a Job Development Investment Grant to Corning Optical Communications Inc., a leading provider of optic fiber communications material, for what he says is moving jobs from its current headquarters in Hickory to a new one in Mecklenburg County.
“The governor’s Commerce Department had just given Catawba County the political equivalent of a poke in the eye with a stick,” read Wells’ newsletter. “[and] another clear reason why stopping the state’s incentives program, once and for all, makes common sense.”
But Commerce Department officials say the incentives Wells’ mentions are actually tied to creation of the 150 new Corning jobs that are coming to North Carolina as part of the new headquarters, saying the state does not offer any incentives for moving jobs from one town to another. The issue came up last week during a legislative committee hearing. A General Assembly Fiscal Research staffer testified under questioning from Sen. Bob Rucho that incentives are only offered on companies’ creation of new jobs within North Carolina.
“These reimbursements are for 150 new high-paying corporate headquarters jobs that wouldn’t otherwise be coming to North Carolina,” said Kim Gernardo, communications director for the Department of Commerce. “Corning is an excellent corporate citizen with a long history in Hickory and North Carolina. They will be maintaining a huge presence in Hickory with more than 800 jobs, plus they have five locations across the state with five thousand employees. This means we can expect even more growth. We should be thanking Corning Optical.”
Wells confirmed that the company’s Hickory headquarters were outdated and the company had been looking at new locations for some time. South Carolina was reportedly a contender to host the new headquarters. Instead, Corning Optical decided on Mecklenburg county just outside of Charlotte to house 150 news jobs there and shift about 500 jobs that are currently in Hickory, Wells’ district. Those 500 positions represent approximately a third of the Hickory-based Corning positions; about 850 positions will stay put. Hickory’s city manager, Mick Berry, said the city tried to keep Corning’s headquarters, but the large Charlotte area, with a major international airport, was difficult competition.
“I don’t like their decision, but it’s their right to make it,” said Wells.
The deal between Commerce and Corning also built in some retention requirements, binding the company to keep 500 positions in the state out of concern over the early consideration of South Carolina sites. However, Wells said a move south was not really not a risk, citing Corning’s deep roots in the state.
“There was no real indication that they would leave North Carolina. There is a long and strong relationship between Corning and North Carolina and I doubt that they would leave the state over not getting $2.5 million in a $38.6 million headquarters project,” said Wells. “It was just unnecessary for the state to get involved.”
Wells was among the lawmakers who supported House Bill 117, or N.C. Competes, a bill designed to be an economic shot in the arm for the state by giving Commerce tools to court big corporate names. Incentives were a big part of the legislation and according to Commerce, a critical part of attracting jobs and investment into the state. Wells voted in favor of the measure at every reading, but said his support was really for other elements of the bill.
“I had to decide whether it was more good than bad. I supported it because it contained a change in the corporate tax calculator called the single sales apportionment factor,” he said. “It represented a reduction in corporate taxes of over 100 million that applied to everyone, not just those who were politically connected. South Carolina was already doing it so it made us more competitive.”
Wells said he and Senate leader Phil Berger met with Corning during the debate over N.C. Competes who told them that the tax calculator in N.C. Competes was important to keeping businesses like Corning in the state.