The Behind the Scenes Story
The Grand Opening of the Athens Caterpillar manufacturing facility is an exciting day for everyone at W&A Engineering. We were involved in the project from the very beginning, having been called in to provide site analysis and preliminary engineering for the 250-acre site that straddles the Clarke and Oconee County line.
The Clarke-Oconee site was a dark horse in the race to win the Caterpillar contract because it was a late entry and had to play catch-up, compared to the other sites being considered. In fact, around the Athens engineering office of W&A Engineering, we call this the “0 to 800,000 Square Feet in 14 Months” story.
Below is a transcription of a talk that W&A Engineering President, Jon Williams, recently gave on the behind-the-scenes drama involved in winning the contract for the Caterpillar site and also lessons other communities seeking economic development can draw from the Athens story. Jon’s Powerpoint presentation is also included below.
Enjoy – and let us know if you would like Jon to speak to your group about economic development and site planning issues.
Note: Slides from the PPT presentation are referenced in the transcription below.
Background & History of the Caterpillar Project
[Slide 1] “Hi, I’m Jon Williams, President of W&A Engineering. We are a civil engineering, surveying, land planning firm located in Athens, GA. Today I would like to talk to you a little bit about the Caterpillar project that has recently come to Athens, GA and begun in January of 2012 and now is having their Grand Opening at the end of October, 2013. The name of the presentation today is “Caterpillar: from 0 to 800,000 Square Feet in 14 Months.”
[Slide 2] The Caterpillar site is a 249-acre site. The main facility is 838,000 square feet, and they also have a shipping facility for prepping their tractors prior to moving them off-site; it’s another 8,500 square feet. When the site was built, over a million cubic yards of dirt was moved. W&A Engineering had to design, engineer, and construct 1.37 miles of access roads. We also had to add and/or modify 3 signalized intersections and design, engineer, and install over 7,000 feet of water line and over 9,000 feet of sanitary sewer line.
The Project Timeline
[Slide 3] W&A Engineering had our initial contact with this job on January 7th of 2012. We were brought in by the county attorney and some county officials who were in contact with the Georgia Department of Economic Development working with a group, who at that time was not disclosed, to find a site in Georgia to add to their selection committee’s list to choose from. The Athens site got added a little late in the process. There was another site in Georgia at one point in time that was in the game, so to speak, for Caterpillar and it got cut from the process because another company was interested in that site and Caterpillar moved on and asked for another site in Georgia.
So, we were contacted on January the 7th and on January the 8th we met with Daniel Haygood, the Oconee County attorney, and talked with him about how we could assist in the site selection process and what they needed to prepare in a very short period of time to present to the Caterpillar team and the selection committee. And as I said, at this time, the company was undisclosed to everyone and we were working with basically a 800,000 square foot footprint, a box that we were looking to see how we could get it to fit on what was known as the Orkin tract, where the Caterpillar site is.
[Slide 4] We had about two weeks before the next round of meetings were to occur between the state and the county officials to prepare a site analysis and due diligence package. What did that entail? Well, we had to do an ALTA survey on the site, we had to do as much environmental investigation as we could, gather any old environmental data that was there and try to get any new data we could prepared.
We did geotechnical borings, we did topographic surveys, we did wetlands analysis and reports, as well as delineations in the field, all in about a two week period of time in preparation for the subsequent meeting that was coming up with the site selection team.
[Slide 5] The site selection team asked that the county continue to work on the site during the selection process so that they could be ready to break ground in March, as soon as the selection was announced. So, W&A Engineering had to get the jump on things to be able to complete site development and engineering plans for the company. Still not knowing who the company was, we were given architectural footprints and access guidelines, things like that. So, we had about 4 weeks after the field was narrowed down to three potential contenders: one in South Carolina, one in North Carolina, and then Georgia, to be able to prepare the site development construction documents.
We had to deal with code modifications with the county governments and we had to deal with utility providers. We worked with the site selection team and the governments with the property owner negotiations. We worked with the two governments, since the project is located in Athens and Oconee County, to help formulate intergovernmental agreements.
The Caterpillar building, the 800,000 square foot building, actually straddles the county line. So there were numerous issues that had to be worked out during that four week period. The plans, the total engineering plans, grading, draining, soil erosion, sediment control, water, sewer, storm water, were essentially had to be done in that four week period of time and ready to submit for review the day of the announcement.
We finally get the news… and the real work begins
[Slide 6] My partner, Frank Pittman and I went to Atlanta the day of the announcement of Caterpillar, after they had selected Georgia to be their site, and we were at the capitol when the governor announced the company had chosen Georgia. We left the capitol, drove back from Atlanta and drove straight to the Athens-Clarke County Planning Department and met with all of the department heads to go over how the next four weeks would go during the plan’s review and permitting process.
We had to permit the plans through Athens since Athens was the designated permittee for storm water. We also worked with Athens and Oconee County Planning and Public Works officials, we worked with the state DOT, we worked with SHPO, the State Historic Preservation Office, the Environmental Protection Division, and the Army Corps of Engineers.
So we had essentially four weeks to permit local, state, and federal permits associated with stream crossings, archeological surveys, signalization on DOT roads, along with all the site development work that was done on the site.
[Slide 7] We were successful in getting the construction permits through the development process in the counties. There were a lot of people who did a lot of hard work during that time: the county employees, the elected officials, along with folks on our staff worked a lot of long hours, had a lot of meetings to coordinate those permits and plans. We were successful in being able to get Caterpillar to start work and break ground on March 17th of 2012.
[Slide 8] After that, we were doing the majority of the surveying and staking on the job. We were also instrumental in the construction management process, both for the Caterpillar portion of the site as well as the roads and sewer and water infrastructure portions that were provided by the county governments for the site. We also worked on as-builts and platting, and we did modifications to the plans as they came through the architectural and design-build process. We coordinated the access utility and signal design permitting, bidding, and construction of all phases of the project associated with the county governments and the industrial development authorities’ part of the job.
[Slide 9] After 12 months of construction on the site, the building was completed and Caterpillar moved into the facility on March 11th of 2013. It was pretty amazing to watch the general contractor, Gray Construction move on this job. They were very well coordinated, well organized, to be able to build a facility like this in such a short amount of time. There was a tremendous amount of earth moving that went into it, a tremendous about of coordination between trades on both the county level with their implementation of the road and water and sewer projects and Gray Construction who was responsible for the Caterpillar job.
Challenges… and how we overcame them
[Slide 10] Some of the most difficult challenges that we faced as a company during this process was the fact that we had multiple local ordinances to deal with. Athens and Oconee Counties had ordinances that were not the same. There was a lot of discrepancies in building set-backs and planning requirements and zoning issues and lighting requirements, a multitude of things that all had to be worked out and compromised or decided upon by the planning officials and the public officials, the public elected officials in some cases, as to who would do what and what ordinance would control what aspect of the job.
W&A Engineering was involved in most, if not all, of those meetings in trying to help come up with the best solution for both communities with regard to the design, construction, and development of the site. Another challenge we faced, obviously, was the time frame. To produce a set of drawings, to not only do the site development work on 800,000 square foot 250 acres site, but also produce separate drawings and permits for nearly a mile and a half of road, water, and sewer infrastructure for the IDA’s, was quite a challenge.
We had a lot of employees working around the clock to produce those drawings. And then we worked closely with the county officials to permit those drawings in a very expedited time frame. Everybody worked together. Everybody understood the implications of the project of this magnitude to the community and set differences and opinions aside for the betterment of the communities and the betterment and the advancement of this project to be able to get completed in the time frame that was allocated.
One of the challenges we faced, specifically in the permitting, was the wetlands. We did have to deal with the Army Corps of Engineers and of course the State Environmental Protection Division to acquire wetlands permits for our road crossings. Typically those types of permits don’t happen very fast, but in this case there was a tremendous amount of cooperation between both the Corps, the EPD, the State Economic Development Department’s Office, and us and our clients to be able to expedite those permits and make sure that the project stayed on task and on schedule.
And then there was the massive building itself…
Another difficult challenge that was really more just for us during the process was that the building design. At one point we had a 600,000 square foot building, and then we had a building that was almost a million square feet, and then we wound up somewhere in between at a building about 800,000 square feet. So the entire time we were working on plans, construction plans, grading plans, drainage plans. The architects, at the same time, were working on the building plans to accommodate the needs of the client Caterpillar, to accommodate the budget requirements that Caterpillar had set forth, and those things were continuously changing, being updated right up to the point of time where the plans were submitted for permit and approval. Those were our most difficult challenges that we faced during the course of the job.
Lessons learned about Economic Development projects
[Slide 11] How does this help going forward for Economic Development Departments, for Georgia Department of Economic Development, project managers? What can W&A Engineering do? What have we learned from this that we can do now going forward in the future should another community have the opportunity to cater to a job like this and in a time frame like this?
Just a few points I can offer you:
1: Get in touch with us early and often, the sooner the better. Having two weeks to do an entire due diligence on a site that 250 acres is not an ideal scenario. We got it done for the Caterpillar job, but obviously the more ready you are as a community, as a developer, to be able to have information at your fingertips to hand over to potential suitors to your sites, the better off you’ll be.
So, get your ALTA surveys done, get your wetlands surveys done, and have an environmental phase I report. Those can all be done up-front at minimal cost and to better prepare you for when a company like Caterpillar may come knocking to look for a site to develop. We provide Development Assessment Reports on sites. If you call us, you can get in touch with us and we will give you a report on your site with all the background information we can find out, pretty much for free, that we have access to through channels that we use every day.
Those Development Assessment Reports can help you make decisions on what your site may be best suited for and what challenges you may face down the road, as well as give something out to clients that are potential purchasers of the land to give them as much information as you can put in their hands.
2: GRAD certification through the Georgia Economic Development Department is an incredible program where you go a step beyond and go down a checklist that the Economic Development Department has for providing archeological studies, wetlands studies, topographic studies, boundary surveys, title reports, everything that a company might come along and need and you can put it all in their hand when it’s done and say this site is GRAD certified, here’s all of our data.
You don’t have to be behind the eight ball. You don’t have to be dragging behind a competitive site in another state that may already have this done. GRAD certification is something that we have been pushing to our clients on larger sites for industrial development, especially since we have been involved with the Caterpillar project.
3: You can bring us in up-front on consultations. We encourage you to call us and bring us in with potential suitors for your site. We are happy to meet with you, the property owner, the developer, any one that may have an interest in the site, and give you our opinion on what needs to be done or what could be done to expedite the development process. We encourage other economic development entities at the local level to get us on their radar before a project comes up. We are working with multiple counties now as their on-call consultants and engineers so that when something does come up that they feel comfortable that they have an engineering and surveying company that they can call on to give them information at the drop of a hat to be able to fill out RFP’s, RFQ’s or cater to a potential client that may be coming to look at their communities. You can utilize W&A for low cost conceptual design and preliminary engineering reports and assessments.
If you have a site and you want to know if a 100,000 square foot building will sit on it, give us a call.
We will be happy to take a few hours and create a quick concept plan just so you’ll know if that site will work for the RFP that you’re looking at or the building that you’re looking at. We can do quick grading plans to establish how much earth moving might be able to be done on a site. We can help coordinate other trades that may be necessary to move a project forward through the due diligence process, geotechnical, for instance, or the wetlands consultant.
We made numerous contacts in the state just working on the Caterpillar job that we think are some of the best consultants in the state with regard to those secondary trades that are necessary for a job of this scope and magnitude. You are welcome to bring us along on site visits and community visits just to get an engineering perspective. If you have a client coming into town, you want to give us a call and let us join you and sit-in on a meeting with you, feel free to do that.
We want to be involved on the front end with Economic Development Departments, and Industrial Development Authorities, with the Georgia Department of Economic Development, and anybody that is really pushing economic development in the state of Georgia.
We feel like we are well positioned, our team is well versed in handling projects of this size and magnitude, and we would love the opportunity to work with you, a land owner, the community, to be able to further the goal of making Georgia the best place to locate for new companies that are looking and really improve the economic development outlook for the state as a whole.
[Slide 12] Thank you for your time. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to talk with you today and I will be happy to answer any questions that you may have.
And again, congratulations to the state of Georgia and to Clarke and Oconee Counties for winning the Caterpillar facility! We’ll be at the Grand Opening, and we look forward to seeing all the positive impacts the opening of the Caterpillar facility has on the local community and economy.”