Provide the Right Details for Smarter Site Selection

Courtney Dunbar, General Civil

April 12, 2019

When you’re considering locations for a new industrial project, details matter — and the details are growing in volume. Over the past 20 years, the number of site selection criteria used by industrial companies has grown from approximately 20 questions to as many as 70 different siting criteria. Clearly, industrial requirements have grown as industries like logistics, data centers, and advanced manufacturing have become more complex and sophisticated. The game is no longer one-size-fits-all. 

Economic developers need to know as much as possible about your site selection requirements to provide a thoughtful response. Yet, many site selection executives hesitate to provide the full picture because of competitive concerns. So, helping economic development agencies respond to your selection requirements demands a careful balancing act.

Site Certification Doesn’t Tell the Full Story

Initially, economic development agencies may present you with a list of certified sites. Certification can distinguish sites based on availability of services, documented site development capabilities, and assurance of permitting and build timelines, but site certification is not industry-specific. That lack of specificity might have mattered less in a different era, but today, not every certified site works for every user.

Also, a site that doesn’t qualify for certification might nonetheless be viable for your project. For instance, a site location may meet most of your project criteria but isn’t certified because of numerous wetland areas. A knowledgeable economic development agency or broker might be able to configure the site around the wetlands. 

It’s better to look for site readiness, including full-site master planning and costs of mitigating contamination or other risks. Availability of services matters, but more important is the level of service. A site may have a major natural gas pipeline within its boundary, but if the pipeline rights belong to a neighboring factory, your company will need to add its own pipeline. An economic development agency typically will provide the number of electric power lines on a particular site, but will the lines provide the capacity your operation needs? Will you have redundant sources of electricity? Can the municipality provide off-site infrastructure improvements?

Going Deeper into Site Certification

Another shortcoming of site certification: It doesn’t capture the nuances of a particular site. An economic development team should be able to quickly tell you about issues beyond site certification that could affect your project.

A site may be zoned for industrial use, but adjacent parcels may allow schools, daycares, or residential development not compatible with industrial use. And nonindustrial neighbors may complain, or even sue, over noise, truck traffic, or emissions. Even rural communities may pose permitting risks — a nearby grain storage facility may generate large volumes of dust that could interfere with getting your air permit.

Also, don’t overlook master-planned sites that, at first glance, appear irrelevant to your project. An enterprising economic development officer will have the foresight to suggest that a site planned for multiple buildings might work for the single large facility that you need, and will quickly provide details about easements, wetlands, drainages, and other factors that may determine whether the site meets your requirements.

The More Intelligence You Provide, the Better the Site Options

Providing the right amount of information to economic development professionals is critical for making a smart decision. The good news is that some agencies have become much more adept at understanding specialized requirements for pad size, power, transportation infrastructure, and more. It’s fair to expect economic development agencies to provide site information in an easy-to-read, digestible format rather than reams of data without relevant context.

A well-prepared economic development agency will be able to dig deeper to support your due diligence. But keep in mind, the more they understand your industry, the better able they will be to optimize your site selection. 

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in "Area Development Online."

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