Councilman warns of firm’s reaction to ‘hostility’

FRONT ROYAL – ITFederal could bail on its plans to bring hundreds of jobs to the area over questions raised recently by a town leader.

ITFederal intends to build a facility on land in the former Avtex Fibers site and eventually create 600 jobs. The Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority worked with the company through the process that remained mired in red tape as parties awaited approvals from state and federal agencies – more than a year after groundbreaking.

Councilman Bret Hrbek said Monday that EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald has spent the past week trying to appease ITFederal president Curt Tran after another council member posed questions about the firm at a recent work session.

“It seems that ITFederal, the owner specifically, Mr. Kurt Tran, has become highly offended by the hostility that he feels directed towards him and the accusations that have been made in his direction … and they’re ready to pull up roots and walk away and I find that incredibly disturbing,” Hrbek said at Town Council’s meeting.

A pattern of Front Royal losing potential developers goes back years, Hrbek said, citing Energy Answers – an alternative-energy project delayed in part by “jealousy” between town and county governments that eventually fell through. The town lost out on another large project dealing with solar power that fell apart amid unfounded accusations of “bribery and embezzlement,” Hrbek recalled. An economic development project in the southern end of town also collapsed amid fear or misunderstanding, Hrbek added.

The EDA has done a lot of work to protect the town and county during the development of the ITFederal project, Hrbek said. The councilman also tried to dispel misinformation about the deal ITFederal received for the site. The firm bought the property for $1, but the EDA included a condition in the sale that if the company failed to make good on its promises, the agency could either take back the land or ask ITFederal to pay $2 million, Hrbek explained.

Should ITFederal leave, the town would lose $150,000 in state funds authorized for the extension of West Main Street into the Avtex site, Hrbek said.

Councilwoman Bébhinn Egger had sought more reassurances from U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, whose office announced the project more than a year ago, about the company and its intentions. Hrbek said Goodlatte’s office indicated that the congressman’s seal of approval came with the groundbreaking.

Hrbek said he talked to Tran recently and commented again at the meeting that it’s not the town’s desire to see the company leave.

Councilman John Connolly blamed other agencies and “unaccountable, unelected bureaucrats” for the delays, saying the town is not a barrier to the project.

“But we live in a world where bureaucracy in Richmond or in Washington, D.C., does have the power to cause massive delay and that’s what happened here,” Connolly said.

Hrbek didn’t mention Egger as the member who raised questions about the project.

“I’m not sure if I should be offended or complimented that Mr. Hrbek has insinuated that I could bring down a $40 million company single-handedly,” Egger said.

Egger added that she wants to see the project completed but stands by her position that it’s also council’s job to protect the town.

“When citizens come to me with genuine concerns and things in black and white that don’t seem to add up I don’t think that it’s insulting or out of line for an elected official to ask questions to try to get answers,” Egger said.

Mayor Timothy Darr defended Egger, saying that council members can speak up about matters that concern them or their constituents.

“That doesn’t mean that that reflects what the council says; that’s the key,” Darr said.

Also at the meeting, council:
• Agreed to direct staff to advance $400,000 for the Criser Road Trail Project by way of an internal loan from the general fund. The town would repay the loan by making four, $100,000 payments each year in future budgets.
• Approved on its first reading a change to the fiscal 2017 budget to reflect outstanding purchase orders totaling $39.43 million as compiled by the Finance Department based on the latest audit. The outstanding purchases are carried forward to the current budget cycle. No one spoke during the public hearing on the matter.
• Approved a request from HEPTAD LLC for a 1-year extension to submit a development plan for Swan Estates until Dec. 3, 2017
• Approved an extension to end Dec. 31, 2017, for water and sewer connections bought before Nov. 30, 2015, but not yet installed. The motion also indicated that connections not installed by Dec. 31, 2017, will be voided with the purchase price refunded to the payer without interest.
• Approved a fiscal 2017 budget amendment for $3,525 from the collection of a surcharge paid by an industrial user of the town’s waste water where reports show the stream exceeded the customer’s permit.
• Approved the renewal of a lease with the Front Royal Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department for use of the carnival lot at 8th Street and Crosby Road. The lease begins Jan. 1 and ends Dec. 31, 2022.
• Approved a proclamation designating Saturday as Kiwanis Club of Front Royal 60th Annual Pancake Day

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com.