By Pamela Pritt
Local leaders are looking for a large return on the region’s major assets — four-lane highways and the Raleigh County Memorial Airport — in the form of a 500-acre Mega-Site, which could attract a bumper crop of economic engines in technology, cognitive science, clean energy and manufacturing industries.
New River Gorge Regional Development Authority Executive Director Chad Wykle said Wednesday the Mega-Site proposal is part of diversifying the region’s economy, and noted that the region’s need to create a new economic atmosphere plays into large companies’ requirements for things southern West Virginia has to offer.
“We have a sense of urgency; we have to do something to diversify the economy,” Wykle said. “A Mega-Site or Sites will be the key to helping us do that.”
Companies ready to make the move don’t have time to spare, he said.
“When companies are ready, they don’t want to wait three years,” he said. “They don’t have time for that.”
Although the self-described optimist has high hopes for the project’s success, he is hesitant to cite job numbers or other specific economic projections for this area.
“This is really the beginning stages,” he said. “We want to do it right and we’ll involve a lot of partners.”
The essential element for right now is suitable property, which could be anywhere in the four-county region the NRGDA serves. And Wykle said more than one property could fit the requirements:
n Minimum of 500 contiguous acres
n Located in Raleigh, Fayette, Summers or Nicholas counties
n Capable of direct ingress/egress from/to a four-lane highway
n Reasonable, cost-effective proximity to public utilities
U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., can enumerate the area’s assets and see them as the foundation for future development.
“I have long supported a broad plan for economic development in the New River Gorge region. We have seen tremendous growth through a bustling almost year-round tourism industry, and all along the river we see signs of brighter opportunities, of spirit, and renewed vitality,” said Rahall.
“From my vantage point as the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee I see clear evidence that every time we invest in our infrastructure we get the added boost of also helping our economy grow jobs. The New River Gorge, the Parkway, and the National Park facilities throughout the Gorge area, for which I helped to obtain funding, are proving to be catalysts of opportunity for southern West Virginia. The proposed Mega-Site would build upon these initiatives providing jobs and greater economic opportunity.”
NRGRDA board president Matt Wender of Fayette County said coal production will be in the broad plan for several years to come, but “not to the degree it has been in the past.”
“Coal has been good to us,” he said. “But to say it holds promise for the future — we would be misleading ourselves.”
Wender compared the Mega-Site to sites in other areas of West Virginia that have had success in attracting major economic players. He said the Toyota Plant in Putnam County and the Macy’s Warehouse in Berkeley County are two examples of potential denizens for an industrial mega park.
“We’ve got a concept; we’re putting it out there,” Wender said.
Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, agrees that diversifying the economy is crucial, and southern West Virginia has a living, breathing object lesson on what the future could be without an adaptable economy.
“We can use McDowell County as an example,” Green said. “If we do not diversify, all of southern West Virginia is going to be McDowell County.”
West Virginia’s southernmost county has been in economic retrograde since coal mines there have cut production and a steel mill closed in Gary. McDowell County’s population tumbled from 100,000 during its peak coal production days to just over 22,000 in the last census.
For Green, the Mega-Site is a bright spot in the recent economic gloom of a national recession and state budget woes.
“This likely will change the future and the economy of southern West Virginia,” he said. “I’m very optimistic.”
The senator won’t speculate on location, but noted that anywhere in the region will be a boost to surrounding counties, as job-seekers will be within driving distance. He does say the project would be good for post-mine land use or an incidental coal removal site.
Wender said the region’s “terrain is very difficult.”
“For us to create a flat parcel requires a fair amount of dirt removal,” he said. “It’s an enormous challenge if we are to create a mega site that puts us in a position to look for companies looking to make a large footprint.”
That footprint will require large structures up to 50,000 square feet, Wender said.
While the expected completion date of the Mega-Site is five years down the road, Wender said quicker would be better for the region’s unemployed.
“Coal miners who are out of work would like to have other job opportunities,” he noted. “People who have left West Virginia want to come back; many of them have skills in the new technology world, and folks can learn new skills.”
Delegate John O’Neal, R-Raleigh, said the news is good for the region and he likes the “very strong vision for the future.”
And while O’Neal said he is a supporter of the coal industry the Mega-Site “prepares the field” for an eventual departure from a coal production-based economy.
O’Neal predicted “potentially hundreds” of jobs associated with the Mega-Site in a public-private partnership that means West Virginians will be more creative in the way they look at economic development.
“West Virginia is at a turning point,” O’Neal said. “We’re going to be the leader, and not trailing the rest of the country. We’re ready to start heading back up; I’m optimistic the pieces are being put into place.”
That sentiment is echoed by the optimistic Wykle, whose eye on the future means taking action now.
“If we don’t do anything, we’re not going to be any better than we were,” Wykle said.
Bids for the project will be opened at 10 a.m. on May 6 in the NRGRDA office.
— E-mail: email@example.com