Town plans new uses for restored site

Economic development eyed for land

By Katie Demeria

FRONT ROYAL — At its peak, Avtex Fibers employed 3,000 people.

Even more than 10 years after the company shut down and its 440 acres became a Superfund site, former employees still felt the emotional impact its closure had on the community, according to Jennifer McDonald, Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority executive director.

McDonald said many attended the community stakeholder meetings held in the early 2000s.

“There was an outpouring of emotion at that time,” McDonald said. “They were very passionate about their desires for this site.”

Around 30 former employees, possibly more, are expected to attend the agency’s event Saturday to celebrate the land’s return to the community.

The event itself, she added, is really for them.

“It brings closure for those employees that lost their jobs that day,” she said. “It brings closure for those folks to know that it did not happen in vain. They didn’t lose their jobs and have no one care. We have cared from day one about how we can make this site economically viable again.”

In some ways, McDonald pointed out, Avtex built Front Royal. The many residential areas surrounding the site were built for employees.

There was a period, she added, after its closure that there was no major employer in the area. The EDA did not start development in the industrial corridor until 1995.

“It was devastating at the time,” she said.

Now that the site’s cleanup is finally over and the Environmental Protection Agency will hand over a letter of no further interest Saturday, 162 acres will be available for development.

McDonald said, after Saturday, the agency will start an “aggressive marketing campaign” to bring employers onto the property.

Right now there are no developers lined up to officially start building, but the authority has spoken to some companies that are used to working on Superfund sites.

McDonald said she envisions a mixed group of employers coming to the area, rather than one large one, as was the case with Avtex. Those companies will exist on the site along with a 240-acre conservation area and 33 acres of community soccer fields and world-class skateboard park, according to an EDA news release.

“We definitely see it as a mixed-use campus because we do not want what happened in ’89 to happen again,” she said. “We really want a diverse group of businesses so if one goes out, it’s a bad thing, but it wouldn’t shut down the whole site again.”

She added that if new businesses on the site return all 500 jobs lost when Avtex closed, it does not necessarily mean 500 new residents will come to the county.

Jobs in one county oftentimes benefit individuals in another, she pointed out, just as many in Front Royal work in Winchester. The town will still benefit from the tax dollars spent when they eat and shop there.

But what those jobs may do is stop residents within Front Royal from leaving the area to commute to their jobs.

“It means your current residents will have an opportunity to get a better job and maybe get off that road they’re commuting on every day,” she said. “We’d love to attract some white-collar jobs to get those folks off the road, as well.”

McDonald added that the redevelopment may not take place overnight, either.

“We want to do this the right way,” she said.

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com