PRINCETON — Despite the pandemic, Mercer County has been experiencing considerable growth, and local leaders are optimistic about what is to come.

According to Secretary of State Mac Warner, the county has had a net gain of 206 new business registrations from April 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021. That does include businesses that may register here for temporary projects, but the 3.3 percent growth is substantial.

Princeton and Bluefield both continue to see an increase in activity.

David Graham, mayor of Princeton, said a trend started in 2015 and 90 new businesses have located in the city since then, with 70 of them still open.

The city has a program of offering an initial waiver of the Business and Occupational (B&O) tax, he said, and it has proven to be popular.

“The national average of retaining businesses for such a program is about 50 percent,” he said. “We are way up there big time with 75 percent.”

Graham said at city council meetings at least one or two new businesses are approved for that waiver, and the construction seen around the city illustrates that.

“It is still a strong, ongoing program and new businesses seem to be eager to come here,” he said, adding that Mercer Street now has only three empty storefronts. “We are closing in on have full occupancy on Mercer Street.”

Graham is also “thrilled” that West Virginia University Hospitals has taken over management of Princeton Community Hospital.

“We have already had inquiries about new private doctor practices and ancillary services moving to the city,” he said. “That will be a boon for the city.”

Graham said the city and the county are taking off.

“I am very pleased with the opportunities in Princeton and the potential businesses have here for success,” he said.

Bluefield Director of Economic and Community Development Jim Spencer also is happy about what is happening.

“In a span of three months during the high point of the pandemic last year (June-September), there were nine new businesses that opened up in Bluefield,” he said. “And we are talking with more, and more are coming.”

Gabe’s recently opened on Cumberland Road and a Goodwill Industries retail store/donation center is also coming.

Spencer said things started moving when Inuit located a Prosperity Hub downtown.

“It goes back to Intuit coming and bringing hope,” he said, and that was complemented by Spencer’s programs to help entrepreneurs.

“There are a lot of failure rates in startup businesses on a national level,” he said, so we are providing programs and classes to make sure they know the business end of it as well as know all the resources available. How to effectively use social media is also emphasized.

Spencer said the housing market is booming as well, to the point finding a property is not easy any longer.

“When I first came to Bluefield six years ago, you could see houses for sale about everywhere,” he said, adding that a recent drive around revealed only one for sale sign.

That is also a message shared by Jeff Disibbio, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of the Two Virginias.

Disibbio said the chamber gets calls all the time asking for information people need to move to the area.

“I think that people are finally realizing the multitude of opportunities that West Virginia offers and especially Mercer County,” he said. “They are realizing how well-handled the pandemic was and the implementation of the vaccine that is still going on.”

Disibbio said the state and county have also been “very thoughtful” about how the day-to-day operations of businesses would be handled and “the concern for the citizens’ health and well-being.”

“If we contrast that with some of the larger cities like New York and Chicago, by comparison Mercer County looks extremely attractive,” he said. “We feel people are finally reaching that realization.”

Disibbio also said he is happy with what Spencer is doing in Bluefield with entrepreneurs and all the outreach provided by organizations like Community Connections.

Leadership is also key, he said, and county and city leaders, including John O’Neal, executive director of the Mercer County Economic Development Authority, are providing the impetus and guidance  to move forward.

“That is probably the biggest reason we are starting to see the growth,” he said, adding that what they do is not always apparent until an announcement is made. “A lot of man hours goes into finding these new businesses and working to bring them here or help homegrown businesses.”

For example, O’Neal recently announced the EDA had purchased the vacant Blue-Prince Plaza, and the 180,000-sq.-ft. complex may soon house a manufacturing company with other businesses locating there as well.

Disibbio is excited about the county and what lies ahead.

“I think this is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “The future looks very inviting for us.”

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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