Frank Csapo

Frank Csapo is CEO of Kentucky-based Barrister Commercial Group.

There could be some comfort taken in knowing that, even during a global pandemic, there’s still a place and time for hot-button issues. In Hillsborough, there’s a heated debate that has been simmering for more than a month. The subject is the proposed Research Triangle Logistics Park development that would be situated on 161 acres of land between I-40, Old Highway 86 and Davis Road. 

In one corner is a coordinated group of property owners who would be directly affected by the planned development. Members of this group have dotted roadsides throughout the county with “Save Hillsborough” signs and banners.

In the other corner is Barrister Commercial Group, a Kentucky-based property development firm that has done work in Raleigh and has had its eye on Hillsborough for some time. The company says it plans to invest $150 million into developing RTLP.

Barrister CEO Frank Csapo, who has been with the company for more than 23 years, talked by phone with the News of Orange County. Below is the Q&A interview.

What do you think of Hillsborough? I like Hillsborough a lot. It’s a great community. The downtown has a great quaint feel to it. We’ve eaten at most of the restaurants downtown. I’ve been going to downtown Hillsborough for more than five years now, and have always been enamored with the town. It kind of feels almost like home to me because I grew up in a little town of 4,500 people. We literally had more cows around than we had people. 

What is it about Hillsborough that attracted Barrister Commercial? I originally became interested in Hillsborough more than five years ago at this point. It related to the Daniel Boone property. We made some offers to acquire the Daniel Boone property. In those early days in the process, we became enamored with the Hillsborough/Orange County area. That appeal has never waned. The opportunity for Daniel Boone never came to fruition for us, but Hillsborough and Orange County since then has been on our radar.

What is the Research Triangle Logistics Park? In a nutshell, Research Triangle Logistics Park is an economic center that will be a job-creator and a major tax-base increase for the Orange County and town of Hillsborough area. It will encompass a multitude of different uses that can be things like warehouse, research and development, light manufacturing and logistics. 

There has been pushback against this development that has been coordinated and vocal. How has your company responded? I certainly think in today’s day and age you will find a certain percentage of the population that is opposed to virtually all change. What is inherent in the system, and I don’t want to say it’s a flaw, but in some ways it feels like it, that the vocal minorities are always the ones that get the limelight. The silent majority that do not oppose the project are never heard from. 

Do you empathize with some of the feelings being expressed by the residents who don’t want the development? Of course we empathize with the folks and we understand that change can always be difficult to undergo. We certainly understand that, and we certainly have great respect for all of their concerns. Having said that, I am extraordinarily disappointed with the selfish minority that has engaged in a smear campaign of distributing falsehoods and misinformation in an attempt to try to get a different message out. I find that underhanded method to be disappointing. For example, they took a peak hour of traffic in the day and multiplied it by 24 and used that as the traffic totals for the project. 

It is important to point out is that about 95 percent of the land area is already zoned for commercial use. The uses that we’re talking about are already allowed, much of it since 1981. This was not a one-time event in 1981. There were five events that have occurred in which there was public review that took place that reaffirmed the economic development status of this area.  

The use of Davis Road and the likely increase in traffic has been a major sticking point for the residents around the proposed RTLP site. How is Barrister addressing those concerns? Davis Road has been labeled as an unsafe sightline intersection. A signalized intersection there will greatly improve safety at that intersection. There is not a traffic issue here. All of the solutions that are being offered will solve existing traffic problems and certainly be more than adequate to handle the traffic generated by RTLP. This is a community question on whether we want to create jobs, we want to increase the tax base and we want to use those areas that were designated 40 years ago for economic development. 

There’s 800 parking spaces in the RTLP plan for the facility. You’re projecting as many as 4,500 potential jobs there. How will you accommodate those positions? No. 1, there is not a site plan before the Board of Orange County Commissioners and there is not a site plan proposed at this time. There will be an entire process through which a site plan will be designed, reviewed and vetted with planning staff in Orange County. That will happen at a later date. The process that we’re undertaking at this time does not require a site plan review process. 

What are some ways Barrister Commercial has sought to involve itself in the communities in which it has developments? It’s typically a several-pronged approach. We start with being members of the local Chambers of Commerce and the local business communities. From there we start to take active roles in understanding the needs of the community and then work to help create solutions for the community’s needs. I’ll give you an example, our South Pointe Commons project. It is a 363,000-square-foot shopping center that is under construction as we speak. When we started the planning process for South Pointe Commons, we became aware of a serious life-safety issue with a local elementary school. We went to work, and over the span of almost two years, we acquired additional land and we went through additional approval processes in order to create a signalized intersection to solve the problem with access in and out of that elementary school to get rid of that life-safety issue that existed there. That’s one example of the types of concerns we find within a community and we work to resolve those as we do our developments.

Do you have any potential tenants that have expressed interest in this site? There are a number of active requests for square footage within this market area. The problem is that the industry works in a somewhat peculiar way. Manufacturing and industrial doesn’t work like your typical retail where you announce your anchor tenant and then everybody fills in around your anchor. You do a Publix deal, you do a Walgreens deal, you do a Wegman’s deal and you fill in the tenants around them. That’s not the way these types of economic parks typically get developed. Normally what happens is there’s a requirement that goes out that somebody needs 500,000 square feet and the request is what is available now or what will be up and available within 90 days. What you’ll find is a great level of frustration in the economic development department because of an inability to have product to fulfill those needs. If the product isn’t there, the need goes elsewhere. It has to be an immediate available product. At the end of the day, we want to increase the tax base for the town and the county. We want to create jobs for the town and the county. We want to create a longterm revenue source for essential public services of the community. What you’ll find is if the project is not approved, ready to go, electrical available, then you’re not in the game. You’re not in the consideration. That’s primarily the issue. To get in the game, so to speak, you have to have the approvals in place. The park needs to be ready to go. Having said that, we’ve gone to great lengths to specify the category of uses that are allowed within the RTLP and we’ve gone through and listed a number of uses that are not allowed within the park. The not-allowed uses were compiled from lists of objectionable uses brought forth by neighbors and residents of the area, and we took those into account to protect them from what they thought were noxious uses.

One of the issues with this kind of development is clarity: At this point in the process, the potential tenants are speculative and unknown. How can you address the concerns around the likelihood of this project filling with tenants? What I can tell you is that in light of the COVID event that has occurred over the prior six months, there have been numerous manufacturing and supply chain weaknesses that have come to be realized by companies and people. PPE being one of them. In response to that, in a recent study that was done, it was identified that there’s an immediate 24- to 36-month need in the country for approximately 400 million square feet of light manufacturing, logistics and warehousing. In addition, right now there’s an approximately 87 percent to 13 percent split between bricks-and-mortar sales and online fulfillment. In other words, 87 percent of what America buys is in stores, and 13 percent is online. Most people think it’s more than that, but it’s about 13 percent. That said, however, over the last four months, there has been a dramatic shift towards the online format created by the pandemic. For every 1 percent shift toward online ordering sales, it creates an immediate need for another 40 million square feet of light manufacturing, warehousing and logistics. We are well aware that the need is there. It’s a matter of creating the product for the pre-existing need. 

If the Board of Orange County Commissioners approves the plan, what comes next? Well, after the appeals period ends, the first step involves the infrastructure side. We will be designing and developing the sewer lines, the water lines, the signalized intersections. All of the infrastructures that goes to support the development will be first on the list of things that need to be done.

So, then the site is “shovel ready,” what then happens? While the infrastructure is being created, there will be parallel activities going on. There will be site plan designs and approvals. That will likely be a three- to four-month process. During that process, all of the site plan logistics designs will get formalized and approved. That will also involve any architectural drawings for buildings that are proposed. That will go through a similar vetting and review process with the building department. Once all of those processes are complete, and the project is fully permitted, at that point construction on the first building will begin. Once everything gets approval, in the market place the project takes on a different flavor. It becomes a real-world project in which the potential future occupant has a certain degree of certainty that the building can be delivered. The marketing will involve a two-pronged approach. We will move toward the development of one building, which would be a spec building. In the meantime, there will be marketing that will be underway to pre-lease other buildings planned onsite.