FRONT ROYAL – Most town leaders showed early support Monday to create an enterprise zone and help develop the former Avtex Fibers site.
But the idea of giving incentives to large businesses and industries moving into the site — at the town’s expense — did not go over well with everyone.
Town Council voted 4-1 to approve on first reading an ordinance that would change a code section to create a Front Royal Enterprise Zone. Such a zone as proposed and if designated by the state would encompass the former Avtex Fibers site as well as adjacent recreational and residential areas. The creation of an enterprise zone would give monetary incentives to certain businesses and industries that agree to locate in the Avtex site.
Councilwoman Bébhinn Egger voted against the motion to approve the ordinance. Egger recalled that council members at a previous work session expressed concern that the proposed ordinance did not include enough protection for the town, specifically if a business took root in the enterprise zone, reaped the rewards of the program and then left after five years, leaving Front Royal with no long-term benefits.
Egger said she still didn’t feel the ordinance, even with language added by Town Attorney Doug Napier, protects Front Royal’s interests.
“I don’t want the town to seem unfriendly toward businesses or anything of that nature but I do think we need to be prudent and take care of ourselves and the town and all the other taxpayers that we represent,” Egger said.
At the public hearing on the ordinance, local proprietor Craig Laird voiced concern about the proposed enterprise zone and its potential effect on existing businesses, especially those downtown. Laird owns Royal Oak Computers at 203 E. Main St. Laird also serves as president of the Front Royal Independent Business Alliance.
“The incentives that are offered may not create new jobs but merely displace them from other localities,” Laird said. “Of course it is to our advantage to get those jobs in our area. But … when all of the benefits go away, we might see those jobs go away like we did with other zones that we have in the town.”
Laird called the incentives unfair to other businesses whose owners pay taxes to the town.
The alliance’s members are mostly small businesses with fewer than 10 employees. The proposed enterprise zone gives incentives to businesses that create 25 or more jobs, Laird noted. He questioned why the town would offer incentives to businesses that might already plan to locate in the zone. Laird said the 20,000-square-foot development eyed in the Avtex site would not house small businesses, but rather the larger chains.
“Is our ultimate goal to bring other jobs here to displace our small businesses?” Laird asked. “So for every dollar given to the new businesses are you going to give a dollar to improve our downtown zones? If we add all these incentives are you really saving money, or are you just moving money around that then harms the local economy and the smaller businesses?”
Councilman Bret Hrbek disclosed earlier in the meeting that he and several other individuals are in discussion to buy a building to be constructed on the Avtex site. The property would need to be rezoned in order for construction to move forward and the planned connector road though the site would benefit the property. After the meeting, Hrbek said this relationship does not create a conflict of interest.
Hrbek called Laird’s concerns valid but said the proposed enterprise zone has a specific purpose of attracting larger businesses.
Vice Mayor Hollis Tharpe did not attend the meeting. Council must hold a second reading on the ordinance to adopt the proposed changes to town code. If approved, the town will apply to Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s office seeking the state’s consideration of Front Royal’s request.
Council voted 5-0 to adopt a resolution for the declaration of an enterprise zone.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org