Turning Plain Dirt into a Real Asset: ElectriCities Smart Sites Certification Program

Site certification works. In order to attract new development, communities have to prepare for it; site certification tools turn ‘dirt’ into real assets.  Certification shows that project work can begin and removes a lot of risk and uncertainty. Having a certified, ‘shovel ready’ site includes environmental assessments, infrastructure details, site planning, and documents that other details such as title work are already complete. This reduces the company’s time for development and positions communities to create job opportunities for local residents. Site certification is a hot topic in economic development and something your community should consider.

We asked Brenda Daniels, Manager of Economic Development for ElectriCities, to dive into the Smart Sites program, explain how communities can get sites Smart Site certified, and share her views on the advantages of site certification tools.

Q: What is the value of shovel ready sites for economic development?

A: The reason ElectriCities offers this program is to make sure communities have product to put on the market. ElectriCities completely funds the certification program, so that leaves flexibility for the communities to use their funds for other economic development tactics. Companies are in a hurry and do not want to wait for due diligence reports. This program lines all that up so the property can compete.

Q: What are the requirements to qualify for the Smart Sites program?

A: We have a target size of at least 25 acres to complete the certification, but many of the sites are more than 100 acres. We include sites served by municipal utilities with that infrastructure in place. We are looking for excellent transportation access, ideally interstate access, and public control of the site.

Q: Can you tell me about the site selection review process and how a site gets Smart Site certified?

A: We solicit participation twice each year from our member communities. We select two to four communities and sites to certify each cycle. Our partners at Creative Economic Development Consulting manage the certification process, ensuring that the site meets our criteria, and moving through the environmental assessments and concept planning phases. We make sure all existing documents about the site are included and commission Phase I environmental assessments, geotechnical evaluations, wetlands review as well as surveys of historic properties and threatened or endangered species. A ‘request for information’ document is also compiled to simulate the requests that a client or consultant may have for the community and site. In short, we jump start the evaluation and documentation a client will want to select a site.

Q: What are the potential benefits of a community having a site that is Smart Site certified?

A: A lot of companies are now looking for those certified sites, so they don’t have to spend the first 4-6 months on due diligence. The certification also reduces the company’s risk. It gives the community that push forward into having a site ready to go – and we believe that will get them on more short lists. 

Q: What challenges do you typically face in getting a site certified? How do you market and promote Smart Sites?

A: Since it is a complex project with a lot of moving parts, there are a number of issues that can derail a certification. An unexpected threatened or endangered species or historic artifacts can require additional planning and accommodations, but do not necessarily mean the site can’t be developed. These analyses and plans can get expensive, and that is why we partner with the communities to work through this process, provide the funding and vendors to achieve certification. 

Once a certification is complete, we have specific marketing strategies for the Smart Sites. There is a separate landing page on our website, and we develop fact sheets for each Smart Site.  With the communities, we highlight the sites in all of our prospect and consultant outreach.  We also put up signage on the site so the community can understand the vision for development. The site selection website has everything they need, and they can see how sites can be situated. For more information and for an example of marketed sites, check out the website https://www.electricities.com/services/economic-development/smart-sites/

This is an example of e-marketing of a Smart Site in Apex, NC.

The Smart Sites program has been helping member communities certify sites as ‘shovel ready’ for about 7 years. One example of a successful site can be seen in Wilson, NC. The site is about 350 acres and a pharmaceutical company built a 200,000 sf building on the first part of the acreage, and there is still quite a lot to sell. The site gets a lot of activity, and the site is often looked at by companies. We think this strategy can work all across our member communities. 

Wilson Corporate Park


For more information on ElectriCities of N.C., Inc., an association of municipal electric systems in North Carolina: https://www.electricities.com/

Connect with Brenda Daniels on LinkedIn

Creative EDC manages the Smart Sites program in partnership with ECS Southeast and O’Brien/Atkins.

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