CHESTER - The top of West Virginia is getting renewed attention from top state officials as a place with economic promise.
Within the span of three months, four sites in Hancock and Brooke counties - ranging in size from 4.25 acres to 616 acres - have become available for development. That's good news for a region that, more often than not, gets passed over when companies look to West Virginia for expansion opportunities, said Patrick Ford, executive director of the Business Development Corporation (BDC) of the Northern Panhandle.
"It's really refreshing now that we've got options," Ford said. "This is the first time in a long time that the Northern Panhandle has been on the state's radar."
Friday morning’s rain didn’t keep (from left) Patrick Ford, executive director of the Business Development Corporation of the Northern Panhandle, West Virginia Development Office officials Mark R. Julian and Carl J. Gunnoe, and BDC Assistant Director Marvin Six from meeting on the site of the old Taylor, Smith & Taylor pottery to discuss economic development opportunities. The 50-foot smokestack in the background is all that remains of the Chester pottery factory, whose demolition was completed in December after sitting vacant for 30 years. (Photo by Stephen Huba)
This past week, Ford and BDC Assistant Director Marvin Six hosted a delegation from the West Virginia Development Office (WVDO), showing them sites as far south as Beech Bottom in Brooke County and as far north as Chester in Hancock County.
Among the visitors were Mark R. Julian, director of Business and Industrial Development for the WVDO, Richard Jennings, manager of national accounts for the WVDO, and Carl J. Gunnoe, WVDO cartographic drafter.
On Friday, Gunnoe accompanied Ford and Six to the old Taylor, Smith & Taylor pottery site in Chester to gather pictures and other information that eventually will be posted on the Web site, WVDO.org.
The WVDO wants to include TS&T on its inventory of state economic development sites so that it can be viewed by companies that search the Internet looking for developable land. Until recently, Ford didn't have many pieces of land to show business prospects.
In the past month, however, Ford has shown the TS&T site to a prospect from Europe and two prospects from the Ohio River valley. "One's manufacturing and the other two are transportation logistics," Ford said, declining to give details because of a non-disclosure agreement.
The BDC bought the old TS&T site in June 2011 for $135,000, ending 30 years of speculation about what would happen to the closed pottery. Work on demolishing the buildings and remediating hazardous materials, including asbestos, on the eight-and-a-half-acre site began in April 2012 and was completed in December.
Ford declared the property "a very marketable site" on Dec. 5, the day Chester residents gathered to celebrate the final cleanup of the pottery.
Ford also has been showing the recently-acquired Wheeling Currugating property in Beech Bottom, which the BDC bought in November from bankrupt RG Steel.
What's more, Hancock County commissioners have enlisted the BDC's help in marketing two more properties - Newell Memorial Field and the old Jimmy Carey Stadium in Weirton. Commissioners bought the high school football stadiums from Hancock County Schools in December for $400,000.
All that adds up to a lot more than what state development officials have come to expect from the Northern Panhandle.
"It's important for communities to be prepared," Julian said, "so we're glad to see they're getting additional sites on which to do development. The communities that are more prepared are more likely to succeed."
Julian said partnerships are key - both between state and local development authorities and between expanding businesses and development authorities such as the BDC and the WVDO. The state can offer incentives, but it's up to local communities to provide the land, he said.
"Our job is to promote the entire state of West Virginia," Julian said.
Ford said the visit by the WVDO officials is a good sign for the community. "They provide an extremely valuable resource as our state partner, to help us market our sites both nationally and internationally," he said. "They also open up a number of doors to prospects. ... We might not otherwise get on their radar if it were not for the development office."
In the past two years, West Virginia has shown that it can beat the competition by landing several important corporate expansions - the Macy's Inc. distribution center in Martinsburg, the Gestamp stamping plant in South Charleston, and the expanded Amazon.com customer service center in Huntington.
In all three cases, visibility and location were critical, Julian said. By putting data about Northern Panhandle sites on the state's Web site, more companies will learn about what Hancock and Brooke counties have to offer, he said.
Once the TS&T information is online, Ford said business prospects looking to expand will have all the relevant information at their fingertips - available land, utilities, infrastructure, workforce statistics and more. All they have to do is go to the Web site and click on "buildings and sites."
"The requirements of an industry are what determine whether a community gets a look or not," Julian said.
The Northern Panhandle holds an advantage with the oil and gas drilling industry because of its proximity to the Marcellus and Utica shales, he said. "This area's pretty hot in regards to that. I think that's a good target for (local officials)," he said. "The missing piece for a long time was having an available site."