For the past decade, Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney, one of the richest men in North Carolina, has been on a land conservation crusade across the state.
The success of Epic Games, the maker of the popular “Fortnite” video game, has made Sweeney a very rich man. According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, Sweeney is now the 209th richest person in the world, with a net worth of $7.2 billion, as of Feb. 26. The Cary-based video game company he founded is now valued at around $15 billion and companies like Netflix cite it as one of its biggest competitors.
With his wealth, Sweeney has made headlines over the years for buying up thousands of acres of forest land across North Carolina for conservation, from pine forests near Pinehurst to land in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Often Sweeney has bought land and then transferred it to a conservation organization, like he did near Mount Mitchell State Park, or has placed conservation designations on property that he owns, such as a 7,000-acre tract of the Box Creek Wilderness in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
His next significant land transfer could take place just down the road from his home base of Cary.
Land that Sweeney currently owns in southern Alamance County could become part of that county’s biggest park as well as one of the largest county parks in the entire state — if the county receives a $1.3 million grant from the state.
A spokeswoman for Epic Games said Sweeney was unavailable to speak about his land purchases for this article, but as he told WNC Magazine in the past, he has been funding a “conservation land grab” across the state. Since 2008, he has bought tens of thousands of acres of land off of real estate developers in the wake of the recession, becoming one of the largest private landowners in the state.
The Alamance County land, 400 acres located off Bass Mountain Road in Snow Camp, is part of the Cane Creek Mountains Natural Area, a swath of land south of Graham that includes some of the highest elevations in the eastern half of North Carolina. It is currently the largest area of natural woodland in Alamance County.
Bryan Hagood, the county manager for Alamance County, said that on a clear day you can see the skyline of downtown Greensboro from parts of the natural area.
“The land is absolutely gorgeous and has some of the highest elevations in the county, going up 800 and 900 feet,” Hagood said in a phone interview. “We’re not speaking about the Smoky Mountains but for the Piedmont it is significant elevation.”
The plan is to one day have more than 1,000 acres of the natural area turned into a park with around 15 miles of trails. To create the park, the county has slowly being buying up tracts of land as it wins grants from the state, while also receiving financial and planning support from the Conservation Fund, the Piedmont Land Conservancy and private donors.
To acquire the land, the county is applying for $1.2 million from the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund and $100,000 from the Duke Energy Water Resources Fund. The county commissioners gave Alamance County Parks and Recreation approval to apply for the grants last week, Hagood said. The county also plans to use its own funds as well as private donors to fund the creation of the park.
“The Conservation Fund and the Piedmont Land Conservancy has found private funding and some of that money has been from Tim Sweeney,” Brian Baker, director of Alamance County Parks and Recreation said, in a phone interview. “I’ve never met him but this is something that he has taken an interest in and we are grateful.”
Sweeney, using his limited liability company 130 of Chatham LLC, bought 400-plus acres in the natural area in 2017 for nearly $2 million, according to county records.
If the county gets the grant, this would be the second large plot of land in the Cane Creek Mountain Natural Area that Sweeney would transfer to the county for the park. 130 of Chatham LLC bought 367 acres there in 2015 for $1.6 million before selling it to the Conservation Fund for $1.2 million in 2016, according to county records. That land was eventually acquired by Alamance County last year for $630,000, according to county records.
Altogether, a future Cane Creek Mountain park would be the largest in the county by far, surpassing the 500-acre Cedarock Park that currently boasts that title. Baker said more preserved outdoor areas are needed because Alamance is one of the few counties in the state without a federal or state park.
The 400-plus acres that Sweeney owns could have been turned into a housing development before the economic downtown of the last decade, Baker said. Now, as the economy has improved, creating this park is a chance to preserve land, provide an amenity to residents and potentially attract visitors from across the state.
“A lot of development is coming to this part of Alamance County and our main goal was just to protect it and allow people to experience it,” Baker said.
He added that one reason the county has been motivated to preserve the land now has been the experience of more developed nearby counties, such as Wake County.
The counties that are more “developed than we are have been really struggling to make new parks and when they find (land) they are paying a lot for them,” Baker said. “You see some of the arguments about Dix Park and it’s because there is just no land left.”
In Wake County, there has been confrontation over the future uses of Dorothea Dix Park in Raleigh as well as the fate of the former Crooked Creek Golf Course, which could be turned into a park, near Fuquay-Varina. Wake County paid around $4 million for the 143-acre property and the city of Raleigh bought the 308-acre Dix Park from the state for $52 million, in a process that took several years of back-and-forth.
But beyond nailing down park land before land prices increase in Alamance County, a new park could also attract more visitors to the county going forward, Baker said.
“If you look at the attendance from some of our state parks, like Pilot Mountain and Jordan Lake, they bring people from all over,” Baker said. “People don’t usually think of southern Alamance County for their outdoor needs … but I think there would be people coming here.”
Alamance County is expected to hear back this summer about its application for grant money.