Could economic boost be in county’s future?

Last month, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced that Proctor & Gamble would construct a $500 million facility on almost 450 acres in Berkeley County.

A project of that scale could come to Shenandoah County, with Mount Jackson considering a series of actions to rezone and annex 712 acres of agricultural property for limited industrial use.

So what has to happen to attract a big tax revenue and job-generating company like P&G to the Northern Shenandoah Valley?

Berkeley County, West Virginia

The Proctor & Gamble plant, which will be at the Tabler Station Business Park next to Interstate 81, will create 1,000 construction jobs and 700 permanent high-skilled jobs, according to Tomblin’s statements. The county is home to four industrial parks and hosts manufacturers like Quad Graphics.

Stephen Christian, executive director of the Berkeley County Economic Development Authority, said the project is a result of capacity, location and preparation.

“Different projects materialize in different ways, but the P&G project was primarily a result of us having a really huge industrial site that we had positioned and ready with all the appropriate infrastructure for a large manufacturing facility,” Christian said.

He said the project began in 2012, when the authority acquired land next to the industrial park, increasing capacity from “230 some odd acres to almost 600 acres.”

“There just weren’t a lot of perfect site options along the I-81 corridor for such a huge facility,” Christian said. “It wasn’t just a green field, it was not only did we have the site in terms of size, but we had most of the appropriate infrastructure … the water, the sewer, the natural gas and the site sat literally on I-81 at an existing exit.”

Christian said preparing industrial sites to be ‘pad ready’ for a facility takes a number of years. He said Proctor & Gamble approached the EDA through an industrial real estate firm in 2013 and revealed itself as a potential buyer in 2014.

After narrowing a list of potential properties, Proctor & Gamble conducted demographic studies of the whole Shenandoah Valley, Christian said.

“They did a detailed demographics and labor pool analysis of the whole region,” Christian said. “In our section of 81, in 30 minutes you can drive from Pennsylvania to Virginia, so the labor pool will come from all four states.”

Unlike Virginia, Berkeley County does not have zoning. However, Christian said whether a jurisdiction has or does not have zoning is not as important as having a highly responsive  government.

“In many cases, not having zoning can be helpful because of the flexibility,” Christian said. “The county planning department and the county engineering department works very efficiently to get projects through the permit process.”

Christian added, “For example, when the Macy’s distribution center came to Berkeley they submitted their site plans at the end of December and by the first of April, they were able to begin site work … I think being able to work efficiently and hand in hand with businesses is key … whether there is zoning is not as important as affiance.”

Frederick County

Frederick County has four industrial parks and hosts manufacturers like Kraft Foods.

Patrick Barker, executive director of the Frederick County Economic Development Authority, said while he would have been more than happy for Frederick County to be picked for a major industrial project, the county simply doesn’t have the land.

“The availability of ready to go, turnkey sites is an issue not just in Frederick County, but throughout the state,” Barker said. “I’d say our biggest sites are about 100 acres, but a lot of companies are looking for sites above 100 acres.”

Barker said the county designated larger lands through its comprehensive plan, but those lands are zoned agricultural.

“The current mode of site selection are turnkey, minimum amount of risk,” Barker said. “Looking for a site is not really a matter of selection, but elimination … companies are risk adverse … areas that can provide ready sites with low risk are what they’re looking for.”

One of the aspects of risk elimination, Barker said, is zoning.

“From an investment standpoint, the zoning in Virginia gives more security to the depreciation of that investment, because you’ll know what’s next to you,” Barker said. “The risk factor is lower in that situation, because there’s less conflicting uses.”

Barker added, “Most companies want to be good stewards, they want to avoid adjacent land owners having concerns with their operations, like noise or odor.”

Barker said like Berkeley, Frederick County can also fast track the permitting process for a facility through its “permitting priority assistance” program.

“Frederick County can absolutely fast track the construction process,” Barker said. “Before the site plan is approved, you can pull permits, start grading your property, get another permit to pour the foundation and by the time that’s done, the site plan is approved.”

Warren County

Warren County has four industrial parks, the Virginia Inland Port and hosts manufacturers and distributors such as Interbake, InterChange and Family Dollar.

Jennifer McDonald, executive director of the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority, said the county also has a land scarcity issue.

“Finding land with the right topography that wouldn’t cost much to develop is very difficult,” McDonald said. “We’re always looking for land that can be developed that doesn’t impact residential neighborhoods … the county’s comprehensive plan wants to keep industrial land on the 522 corridor.”

McDonald said the largest industrial site available for a project is 54 acres, however, a gas line runs through it so a building can only be built to one side of the gas line. McDonald said the lack of large industrial pad ready sites means the authority could be “selective” when approached by a company.

“We’re looking for that company that can create the most jobs, pay the highest wages and bring the most investment,” McDonald said. “We don’t want the company coming in that will pay $8 an hour; we want the company that will bring competitive wages.”

McDonald added, “Because land is scarce, we want to make sure we get the right company for the community.”

The county’s zoning helps the authority when courting a potential business, McDonald said.

“It helps us to know where we can have industrial growth, so that way we don’t waste our time with a company,” McDonald said. “If there’s a piece of land the company wants that’s not in the plan, we know why it’s not in the comprehensive plan and we know where to show prospects.”

McDonald added, “We go into these deals knowing what the county wants. If they tell us that they don’t want distribution, we won’t go for distribution … our Board of Supervisors is very stable and open. You know what they want.”

Warren County can also fast track permits, like Frederick and Berkeley, through its “enterprise zone” along Route 340/522 north of Front Royal, which provides incentives for businesses interested in relocating operations to the county.

Shenandoah County

Shenandoah County is home to two industrial parks and hosts manufacturing facilities such as Mercury Paper and International Automotive Components.

Unlike the other counties, Shenandoah County does not have an economic development authority, however it has an industrial development authority that conducts similar work. Brandon Davis, director of community development for the county, said the differences are mostly semantics.

“Under the legislation in Virginia that creates IDAs and EDAs is one in the same,” Davis said. “If you look around the area, the EDA is the major economic development arm many communities have invested in, but we haven’t done that like communities have.”

Davis said the authority is waiting “for something more tangible” before changing into an EDA.

“If the roles of our IDA change to look more like the EDAs in our region, then that’s when we might consider a change,” Davis said.

Davis said one of the biggest challenges for Shenandoah County’s economic development is staffing.

“There’s no staff, it’s me, that’s it, it’s staff and budget,” Davis said. “We rely heavily on the Shenandoah Valley Partnership to do our marketing for us … we are able to pool in resources with other communities in the region.”

Davis added, “Through the partnership, we are able to do marketing campaigns that are regional focused that include our properties, that we would never be able to do on the amount of budget we contribute to the partnership if we did it alone.”

Davis estimated about 20 free acres can be found in the Mount Jackson and Strasburg industrial parks, and 224 acres zoned for industrial use in Toms Brook. Davis said each area is pad ready on a “spectrum.”

“On that spectrum of being pad ready, you can make steps to get closer and closer,” Davis said. “If you have a property zoned, that’s the big hurdle, then you have to think about water and sewer, power, rail, roads.”

The Mount Jackson site is the closest to being pad ready, Davis said, while Strasburg’s site has some development and Toms Brook has topographical and infrastructure issues.

“There’s one site owned by the town of Mount Jackson that we market heavily as a food facility because it’s ready to go,” Davis said. “Our site in Strasburg has utilities in place and roads, but has not been graded … the one at Toms Brook is a little more challenging because of lack of water and sewer, access problems, but it is nevertheless zoned for it.”

Davis said the county’s comprehensive plan, which calls for preservation of farmland in the county, strikes a balance because it also encourages growth around the towns.

“The rural ground in this county that is used for agriculture is ground the community has decided should be preserved for agriculture,” Davis said. “But at the same time, that community planning process has decided in order to have growth to balance that is around the towns … you can’t have one without the other.”

Davis said the county does not have an enterprise zone, but can fast track permits on a case-by-case basis.

“We’ve discussed an enterprise zone in the past, but I feel like the small nature of our organization can fast track projects as needed,” Davis said. “When you have an enterprise zone, you publish incentives upfront, but we don’t want to give away anything if we don’t need to … we try to be project specific.”

While Davis did not want to comment on the rezoning request brought to the Mount Jackson Planning Commission Monday night by Robert Whitehurst, for 136 acres to be zoned to limited industrial use and then his remaining 576 to be annexed by the town for a future industrial site, Davis did say “zoning is site specific.”

“The challenges with rezoning one piece of property can be different than another two miles down the road,” Davis said. “Zoning is 100 percent community based and site specific.”

Contact staff writer Henry Culvyhouse at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or hculvyhouse@nvdaily.com