Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

June 11, 2014

Projects needed to spark economic development, job creation

— — It is no secret that our region needs a big project — or a big idea — to help spark renewed economic development and growth. And sometimes it is that one big, or semi-big development, that can serve as a catalyst to additional or related growth. In recent years, there have been a couple of well-intended “big ideas” proposed by area officials. Unfortunately, very few of these have come to fruition to date.

The long-planned equestrian park/multi-purpose center project for Mercer County is one example. We have been reporting on it for quite some time now, and the project itself has seemingly been studied to death. It is still proposed — and officials believe it can still happen. But actual property has not yet been purchased for the project, nor have sufficient state, local or federal funds been found to date to construct the actual multi-purpose center. I hope this project happens. I really do. It could provide a big economic development boost to our region. But the clock is ticking, and officials need to expedite this effort if it is to become a reality.

The long planned Colonial Intermodal Center project in Bluefield, which was later rebranded as the “Roundhouse Square,” also remains in a state of limbo. The five board members who came up with the idea for the project were all voted out of office. And former city manager Jim Ferguson, who helped spearhead the idea, also is no longer working for the city. That leaves U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., as the last man standing who had a direct involvement with the Colonial Intermodal Center/Roundhouse Square concept. Rahall came up with the $600,000 in federal funds for the initial planning and design of the project. The five newly elected board members say they are still working to utilize the $600,000 federal grant as part of the design and study of the Colonial Intermodal concept. But it will take millions more in additional local, state or federal funds to help construct the original vision for this project.

As originally planned, the Colonial Intermodal Center/Roundhouse Square would incorporate a transit-transfer center on Princeton Avenue for buses and other forms of public transportation while utilizing building pads, or shell buildings, for prospective businesses. The newly elected city board members inherited this project, and soon they will have to make a decision on what to do with this prime downtown site.

Two other big ideas were proposed just before the onset of the Great Recession in 2008. They were the ill-fated Leatherwood Shopping Center project and the Bluestone Regional Business and Technology Park. The big shopping center once envisioned near the state-line border of Virginia and West Virginia became a victim of the Great Recession. And the economic downturn also hurt the Bluestone Technology Park project. But officials in Tazewell County proceeded with the development of the aesthetically pleasing industrial site near Bluefield, Va., with a goal of having ready-to-occupy sites for prospective businesses and industries. The county’s Board of Supervisors and the county’s Industrial Development Authority later reached an agreement with Bluefield College for the development of the proposed Bluefield College School of Dental Medicine. Everything looked promising up until just about a week ago.

That’s when the original memorandum of understanding agreement between the county and the college expired. The agreement stated that if the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission didn’t award a grant or combination of grants to Bluefield College equal to $10 million or more — excluding a planning grant of $250,000 that was previously awarded — by June 1 for the proposed dental school, the memorandum of understanding would be terminated by July 1. The first of June has now passed and the dental school project has yet to be awarded additional grant funds from the tobacco commission. In layman terms, this means the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors are no longer providing funding to the dental school project, according to Northwestern District board member Seth White.

White says Bluefield College can continue to seek funding for the project on its own. And college officials say they will do that while they await a possible funding decision from the tobacco commission this September. With hope, the dental school can still become a reality. It would be a great start for the still vacant Bluestone Regional Business and Technology Park, and could provide a spark leading to additional growth.

As it stands now, we urgently need some of these long-planned projects to materialize. And if they don’t, other big ideas and dreams will be needed to provide that desperately-needed economic development and job-creation spark.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com. Follow him @BDTOwens.

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