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Finding a happy medium

This is part four of an eight-part Sunday Gazette-Mail series focusing on the state of regional economies in West Virginia.MOOREFIELD — A large log chalet sits atop a hill just east of Moorefield in Grant County. A deck wraps around the two-story wooden mega-cabin that serves as a model home for Ashton Woods, a 10,000-acre housing development.“Spectacular mountain acreage situated on the Allegheny Front of the Appalachian Mountains, two hours west of Washington, D.C.,” reads the development’s Web site. “Ashton Woods offers all the privacy of large mountain property along with easy access to modern conveniences.”The view from the wooden model home’s deck is full of trees. But, it also overlooks Corridor H. The development’s entrance is located less than a mile from the road that will one day connect Elkins to the Virginia state line, just past Wardensville.The corridor’s proposed path snakes through Tucker, Grant and Hardy counties and brings with it a hope for the Potomac Highlands region that each mile paved will produce prosperity in the form of higher land values, increased tourism and industry and more jobs.“Corridor H is going to change this region,” said Jim Cookman, a member of the Grant County Development Authority. “It’s going to make it much more accessible to metro regions. It puts us in reach of a lot more folks.”Corridor historyIn 1965, the Appalachian Regional Commission designed Corridor H as one of the 23 transportation corridors to be developed as part of the Appalachian Regional Development Act, which Congress passed in an effort to stimulate economic growth in rural Appalachia.In the past 39 years, the project has faced several studies, lawsuits and environmental hurdles. The project was also placed on hold from 1984 to 1990 due to funding issues.A 13-mile section from Interstate 79 to Buckhannon opened in 1979, and the 18 miles from Buckhannon to near Elkins opened in 1994. Then, the 7.5 miles up to Kerens opened in 2002, said Carol Melling, state Division of Highways spokeswoman.So far, about 20 more miles, Elkins to Kerens and Moorefield to Baker, of the 133-mile highway have opened. The section from Baker to Wardensville is expected to open by the end of next year, Melling said.But the project’s completion could take up to 20 years unless the Virginia Department of Transportation upgrades its section of Va. 55 to Strasburg to four lanes, the level of service on the West Virginia portion of 55 deteriorates to an unacceptable level or Congress provides funding with a completion date to finish the road.A changing economyTucker County Commissioner Arlie Davis remembers moving to the county in 1967 from California. There were wool mills, tanneries, coal mines and timbering.“The business climate was good,” he said. “There wasn’t a vacant house in Tucker County. Now, we have a lot of vacant houses.”
In 1990, 23 percent of the county’s available housing was vacant. By 2000, the amount of vacant housing increased to 35 percent, according to the U.S. Census.The wool mill and tannery jobs have since gone overseas. Most of the coal jobs have left.“There’s not even a saw mill in Tucker County. There used to be a saw mill in every hollow,” he said.The county’s population decreased by 1,507 people, or 17 percent, between 1980 and 2002, according to the U.S. Census. In 2002, 7,168 people lived in Tucker County. This decrease is the highest out of all the five counties in the Potomac Highlands region, which for this story includes Grant, Tucker, Mineral, Hampshire and Hardy counties. Overall, the region’s population has grown by 12 percent while the state’s population has increased by 0.5 percent.The county does have the Kingsford Charcoal plant in Parsons, a Mettiki coal mine off W.Va. 93 near Davis and Hinchcliff Lumber Co. in Parsons. Plus, ground was broken earlier this week for a $10 million juvenile correction facility, which is expected to add at least 40 jobs.In the Potomac Highlands region, the number of goods-producing jobs has decreased by 19 percent from 1980 to 2001, while the number of service producing jobs increased by 56 percent, according to data from the state Bureau of Employment Programs.
Many of these service-producing jobs are in tourism.In Tucker County, more than 500 people worked in tourism jobs, according to the Division of Tourism’s 2002 annual report and the Tucker County Convention and Visitors Bureau.Crystal Roth has lived in Tucker County her entire life, nearly 40 years. She’s owned the Christmas Shop in Thomas for eight years. Tourists and people who own second homes nearby make up 99 percent of her business, she said. The busy season runs from mid-June through Christmas, when people are vacationing.She said Corridor H could only enhance her business and the area’s economy by helping people get in and out.“I think it’s going to bring tourism type industries — shops, motels, restaurants,” she said.But, she’d also like to see the road bring more than just tourism to the county.“I think if we could get two or three companies that employ 50 people each, [it] would be a good balance, instead of waiting for Toyota. Toyota isn’t going to happen.” Real estate along corridor is hotAny real estate along the corridor is hot right now, said Chuck Boggs, a real estate agent at West Virginia Land Sales in Petersburg. Land with access to water, like a waterfall or pond, or land with a view is selling especially well.An acre of land sold for $700 to $800 in 1994, Boggs said. Now, he can sell the same acre for $2,500.“A lot of our buyers are baby boomers and they have the money,” he said. “This is the last great frontier and close to cities.”He said 80 percent of his customers are from out of the area. About 65 percent of them are buying second homes.A 217-acre parcel of land with an “incredible view and waterfall” in Ashton Woods is selling for $199,900, according to the company’s Web site. A 23-acre site with a “50-mile view and minutes to a large river” is selling for $94,900.Ashton Woods Developer Hunter Wilson bought the land from papermaker Westvaco nearly two years ago. In that time, business been fantastic, Wilson said. He estimated 15 or 20 houses are being built in the development.While the bulk of buyers come from the west and north side of Washington, D.C., Wilson said buyers have not been limited to the metro area. Many of the buyers are people who plan to retire in Hardy County in three to 15 years.Lost River in Hardy County, Romney in Hampshire County and Petersburg in Tucker County, are especially hot spots, Boggs said. People like the area because it’s pristine, not crowded and clean. Plus, property taxes are lower than in the metro areas and acreage is still available.Property taxes in the Potomac region average $.85 per $100 of property assessed compared with $1.09 on average in places near Washington, D.C., and in Virginia and $1.05 in places near Baltimore.Property values in the region tend to be lower than the metro areas, but are steadily increasing, said Hampshire County Assessor Frank Whitacre. Home values in his county have increased by about 30 percent in the past decade, which he attributes to the area’s closeness to Washington, D.C.He’s also seen the number and size of houses increase.“We used to see a lot of recreation sales of property,” he said. “People would buy for investments and vacation homes. Now, people are buying here and driving to the metro area to work.”He said people used to build 1,500- to 2,000-square-foot houses worth $100,000. Now, it’s not uncommon to see 3,000-to 4,000-square-foot houses worth a few hundred thousand dollars.
The number of housing units in the five-county Potomac Highland region of Grant, Hampshire, Tucker, Hardy and Mineral counties increased by 7,167 between 1990 and 2000.Boggs predicts this increase will continue into the next decade.“I envision neighborhoods developing where there’s now farmland. It will increase the economy, jobs, crime and riffraff,” he said. “But, our sleepy area will no longer be [sleepy] anymore.”Becoming East Coast’s playgroundIn the past 25 years, Walt Ranalli, 44, former mayor of Thomas, current Davis business owner and lifelong Tucker County resident, has noticed the area changing. It used to be a more industrial place that involved the hard industries of “cutting up, chopping up and shipping out.” Now, softer industries like tourism have taken over.“I think the economy of Tucker County is starting to diversify again,” he said. The economy was diverse when coal, timber, coke ovens and tourism co-existed.Now, in the midst of a changing economy, is the time to find ways to be innovative and creative, he said.“We lost that in the coal days. They just wanted you to dig,” he said.He thinks Corridor H will help the tourism industry and could bring light manufacturing jobs, but won’t necessarily bring the big manufacturing jobs people are hoping for. The employment base doesn’t exist in the county, he said.As people move to and visit the area, it will be important to save spaces along the corridor.“They’re going to have to have ground to play. People need to recreate,” he said. “We have the potential to be that place.”Corridor brings people in, chicken outPilgrim’s Pride, one of Hardy County’s largest employers, is located in Moorefield, near one of the Corridor’s completed sections.Almost half of all chickens sold in 2002 in West Virginia came from Hardy County. Nearly 80 percent came from the five counties in the Potomac Highland region. Chicken sales in the region increased by 310 percent between 1982 and 2002.Pilgrim’s Pride has two plants in Moorefield and about 2,100 employees. One plant is a chicken processing facility that includes a hatchery, feed mill, processing plant and protein conversion facility. The other is a prepared food plant where employees season, bread, cook, steam, freeze and package chicken pieces.The processing facility processed 7.5 million live pounds of chicken per week in 2003, and the prepared food plant processes approximately 2.1 million pounds weekly. Once processed, the chicken is often shipped down the corridor.Hardy County was the only county in the region with substantial growth in goods producing jobs from 1980 to 2003. The number of these types of jobs increased by 157 percent.High-tech businessesAlthough the Corridor might eventually help some businesses in the region, others are too far away to benefit. But, the northern part of the region is close to Interstate 68, another artery to the eastern metro areas.With 810 employees, ATK Tactile Systems Co., in Rocket Center is Mineral County’s largest employer. The plant supplies rocket motors and warheads for tactical missiles that American soldiers are using in Iraq. The plant also makes 120-mm tank ammunition.About 95 percent of the plant’s business is with the Department of Defense, said Marketing Manager Gary Geiger. The company recently won a $30 million contract to develop a new guided weapon for the Navy, which was its third major defense contract this year.The work being done in the company’s Minneapolis-based factory will move to Rocket Center in October, said ATK Executive Vice President Pat Nolan. At least 75 people will be hired beginning in August.ATK is located in the Robert C. Byrd Hilltop Office Complex, which also houses the Robert C. Byrd Institute. The institute has four facilities in West Virginia that offer computer labs, videoconferencing equipment and training programs to small and medium-sized manufactures. The Rocket Center location started in 1998 because there were several manufacturing businesses nearby, said Marty Spears, a technical assistant at the institute.The Rocket Center facility has a machine shop where companies can send their employees for training. Employers can also lease time from the center on the equipment to test it out before buying it. The center also trains workers on quality management and military product standards.Generating power and hopeThe corridor is slated to run past Dominion Energy’s Mount Storm plant in Grant County. The plant turns coal into electricity for northern Virginia and employs 260 people. Employees come from a 50- to 60-mile radius to work at the plant.Station Director Roger Shears said the road would make it safer for his employees to get to work and cut down on their commute. The road also will make it easier for coal trucks to get their supplies to the plant.Shears was born and raised in Keyser, Mineral County. He’s worked with the company since 1972, and worked in both Virginia and West Virginia. He’s been back in West Virginia since 2001.“When I graduated from high school, there weren’t many opportunities,” he said.The Richmond, Va.-headquartered company pays good wages and offers medical and retirement benefits, Shears said. Electricians and mechanics at the journeymen level can make $25 an hour, not including overtime.Changing business climateThe past 20 years have been tough for Grant County. A poultry plant and garment factory closed, eliminating nearly 400 jobs in a county that had 5,110 workers in 1980 and 4,190 in 2003.In 2003, Grant County’s unemployment rate was 11.5 percent, 5 percent higher than the state average. Between 1980 and 2003, the unemployment rate decreased in all the Potomac Highland counties, with the exception of Grant County.But the county has Allegheny Wood Products, a company that employs more than 100 people who make furniture pieces out of wood. American Homes by United Builders, a company that will make wall panels for houses, broke ground for its Grant County manufacturing facility earlier this month. Cookman said the business will employ up to 60 people when it opens in October.The county is on the verge of developing a business park and would like to attract a governmental agency, perhaps something dealing with homeland security and small defense contractors.The corridor might help make the county and region more appealing to out-of-town businesses.“Two hours to D.C., that will be huge,” he said.Now, it takes slightly more than three hours to get from Scherr, which is in the middle of the county and along the corridor’s path, to Washington, D.C.Cookman admits that while a highway could bring more opportunities, it will also change the rural lifestyle many people in the region are used to.“It’s nice to have life how it’s been for the past 50 years. [But], we need to have economic development so our young people continue to reside and raise families in West Virginia,” Cookman said.“Finding a happy medium is the trick to all of this.”To contact staff writer Jennifer Ginsberg, use e-mail or call 348-5195.
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