Lowell city leaders took the first step toward helping Gaston County land a company that economic leaders say would bring 500 jobs to the city with an average pay of $50,000 a year.
“It’s a big deal,” said Donny Hicks, who leads the county’s Economic Development Commission. “If we can pull it off, it will be the largest office project in the county’s history.”
Echo Park Automotive, the used-vehicle branch of Charlotte-headquartered Sonic Automotive, had intended to open a used car dealership on 8.3 acres of land it bought near the Exit 22 interchange off I-85 in Lowell. Construction for that project looks almost complete.
But Sonic Automotive may now want to do something different with the land, which would include using the site for a sort of call center that could employ 500 people with average annual pay of $50,000, according to county and company officials.
The average annual wage advertised for the new company’s employees would be about 35 percent higher than the current average pay of $37,000 per year for workers in Gaston County.
What Lowell City Council did
A unanimous Lowell City Council voted Friday to offer Sonic Automotive property tax reductions for a period of years if the company follows through with expected jobs at the site. Gaston County commissioners will be asked to approve a similar agreement concerning county property taxes at its Oct. 23 meeting.
The state would also offer job recruitment incentives to the company, Hicks said. Details remain secretive in part because Sonic Automotive also has its corporate eye on more than a half dozen other sites across the country.
“This is a great opportunity for Lowell, Gaston County and the state of North Carolina,” Lowell Councilwoman Candy Funderburk said. “This will bring us a lot of good jobs.”
Former Lowell Mayor Larry Simonds has criticized the deal saying Sonic Automotive doesn’t need any financial help from Lowell or Gaston County taxpayers.
“They don’t need any handouts,” Simonds said after the council vote.
But city leaders called the deal a “win-win” situation for the town and those who live here.
“They pay us taxes first. We give them a portion back up to 10 years. After the 10 years we get all of the tax money,” Funderburk said. “It’s a win-win situation because we get that tax money we didn’t get in the first place.”
Mayor Pro Tem Thomas Gillespie said the project would enhance the town’s image and help it recruit even more jobs to the area.
“I can’t see anything but growth and prosperity for Lowell with this project,” Gillespie said.
What would the company invest?
Sonic Automotive would invest about $8.3 million more in additional land improvements and about $3 million in machinery and equipment, Hicks said. Echo Park alreay bought the 8.3-acre tract along I-85 in Lowell in early 2017 for $3.75 million.
But the project would also boost the county’s image as a place where companies can have confidence in locating white collar and office jobs, Hicks said.
“This would validate for us being a location for those type of projects,” Hicks said.
EchoPark Automotive launched in 2014, selling used cars, trucks and SUVs. EchoPark got its start in Colorado, but the retailer soon began expanding into North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Texas. The push into Gaston County is part of that wave, as EchoPark also recently spent $6 million on a 10-acre tract in east Charlotte for construction of a 30,000-square-foot dealership that opened this month.
No one from Echo Park or Sonic Automotive attended Friday’s meeting, but Hicks has been in contact with company officials.
While the town of Lowell and the Gaston County Board of Commissioners may be in a “hurry up” mode, the company could take weeks or months to sift through its options, Hicks said.
Gaston County Commissioners Ron Hovis and Ronnie Worley attended the Lowell City Council meeting. Worley said the county would do what it could to help bring the project to Lowell.
“This will be a win for Gaston County and if we can land this project,” Worley said.
You can reach Kevin Ellis at 704-869-1823 or on Twitter @TheGazetteKevin.