POINT PLEASANT — The West Virginia Development Office sponsored a round table discussion on economic development this week at the Marshall University Mid-Ohio Valley Center with local officials and residents of Mason County attending.
Mason County Commission President Rick Handley welcomed the visitors from the state development office and all those in attendance with opening remarks on behalf of himself, Commissioners Miles Epling, Tracy Doolittle and County Administrator John Gerlach.
“We are proud Mason Countians but, like many others places in West Virginia, we have seen better days,” Handley said. “We have lost a few manufacturing facilities and a chemical plant in the past several decades, and are about to lose a power plant next June with the Philip Sporn Power plant shutting down. As bad as it may seem, we remain positive and want to showcase our county. We know the potential our county has.”
When speaking about the challenges West Virginia faces in terms of economic development, an educated workforce was one of the main stumbling blocks, this according to Keith Burdette of the WV Development Office.
Burdette told those in attendance West Virginia students score consistently at the bottom of the list when it comes to math and science. He added, in some cases, when it came to people searching for certain jobs with only a high school diploma, having just this diploma was about as significant as having a certificate that states they finished middle school. And, it isn’t just about educating students but educating adult workers on the necessity of pursuing continuing educational courses or certificates pertaining to their trade.
Those from the state development office also spoke about its website for marketing sites for commercial development and how Mason County’s listings on that site were “woefully” incomplete. This site is used to attract business development from not only across the state and country but around the world. The development office asked for help in adding properties to this site - particularly sites of 100 continuous acres which can be developed into “certified sites.” Certified sites are determined as certified by various criteria but to be sure, having access to the appropriate infrastructure (water, sewer, electric, gas, transportation needs) is critical to that certification.
John Smolak, director of Economic and Business Development for American Electric Power said AEP’s site in Apple Grove is a “premiere” site in the state which the company is exploring to get “certified” which means it could be developed by some entity eventually. However, Smolak said though the site has some infrastructure in place, it also has some limitations. Still, AEP is looking at getting a contract together to do environmental work at the site, as well as on similar sites in Buffalo and Oklahoma.
“We’re taking an aggressive approach to see if it can get certified for development,” Smolak said of the Apple Grove site. “We want a large user to come in who has an impact on the community.”
Smolak described a “large user” as one who consumes 100 MW of power or more.
As for AEP’s Philip Sporn Plant, when asked, Smolak said there were internal discussions on how to possibly redevelop the site.
Some good news for Mason County is its availability of flat land near the river and rail, as well as the completion of the wastewater treatment facility by the Mason County PSD on the northern end of the county. Though south of the Kanawha River, beyond the town of Henderson, wastewater and sewer infrastructure was lacking.
Both Burdette and Kris Hopkins, also of the state development office, spoke about the Ethane Cracker Project in Wood County and its possibility for “downstream” economic impact in Mason County. It’s predicted if the plant is built it could create 17,000 “downstream” jobs - meaning jobs indirectly associated with the plant.
Of course many in Mason County prefer to be directly impacted by economic development which was one of the reasons for this week’s meeting.
Heading the meeting was David Lieving of the state development office and in attendance were representatives from CSX, W.Va. Port Authority, Region II Planning and Development Council, Mason County Area Chamber of Commerce, Mason County Economic Development Authority, Mason County PSD, local banks, businesses and more.