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Statehouse Beat: Charleston’s economic rocket ship stuck on launch pad

While Gov. Jim Justice says West Virginia is on an economic rocket ship ride, one important statistic indicates that Charleston missed the launch.

For more than two decades, Charleston realtor Howard Swint has tracked occupancy rates for the city’s Class A office towers, and his most recent survey found vacancy rates remain among the worst he’s seen in 20-plus years of conducting the survey, approaching 20 percent.

It’s notable that as recently as 2012, the same office towers were effectively fully occupied, and Swint was confident that new construction of downtown office space was inevitable.

Of course, since then, coal tanked and natural gas companies decided to relocate their West Virginia headquarters closer to production sites in the northern half of the state, and the rest is history.

What Swint found most notable about the latest survey is that one of the six office towers he tracks, the Huntington Square tower at 900 Lee Street East, is practically empty, with an 80 percent vacancy rate.

A lot of that had to do with Huntington Bank, for which the tower was renamed, moving its offices and branch bank location to Laidley Tower last year.

However, rumors that the state is looking at buying the building, and using it to consolidate various state agency offices currently located in rental properties around the city, are making it difficult to attract new tenants, Swint said.

While the Department of Administration officially denies the rumor, there’s certainly precedent, with the City Center West office tower becoming the Lottery headquarters and home to a number of other state agencies in 2011. Meanwhile, the state Real Estate Division’s printout of state agencies renting space in metro Charleston fills nearly three pages, single-spaced.

•••

Jim-ism of the week: “We have so much to celebrate …Why in the world would we need to go sandpaper a lion’s ass?”

Justice’s newest colloquialism was in response to a question at his Thursday presser about the upcoming resumption of the special session on public education. The governor reiterated his support for some of the more broadly supported education proposals, including pay raises for teachers and school service personnel, school aid funding floors for low-enrollment counties, more funding for school counselors, nurses and psychologists — along with “two or three” pilot charter schools, but not the more extreme measures advocated by Senate leadership.

It’s worth noting that one of the architects of the “sandpaper” approach, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, was in the Capitol Thursday. But Carmichael did not attend Justice’s press conference, which ostensibly was to announce strong revenue collections in April.

(Perhaps that was out of an abundance of caution, given Justice’s tendency to blindside legislators at his pressers. Recall last fall, when Justice had House and Senate leaders gather around him for a conference to tout accomplishments under Republican leadership, and then proceeded to announce another round of pay raises and a $100 million commitment to PEIA, making it appear they were endorsing the proposals.)

Also notable that the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, an astroturf front organization for ALEC, is gearing up publicity efforts touting charter schools.

With no agreement on a special session agenda in sight, I’m advised legislators have been told that when the special session resumes on May 20, it may be just to take up and re-pass bills that Justice vetoed for technical errors, with the possibility the Legislature would again recess to June to try to buy time to find a compromise on education reform.

•••

To that end, Delegate Danny Hamrick’s forced resignation as House Education Committee chairman obviously is a heck of a complication as the Legislature moves toward resumption of its special session on public education.

Hamrick’s dalliance with a legislative intern, which he insisted had not progressed beyond schoolyard crush level, is nonetheless a violation of anti-fraternization policies and another example of poor judgment on Hamrick’s part.

To his credit, Hamrick took immediate ownership of his mistake, and didn’t try to deny, deflect or obfuscate.

While a consensual relationship with an intern (or other subordinate) is an intolerable abuse of power, many took note of Speaker Roger Hanshaw’s swift and certain punishment of Hamrick, as opposed to the lack of discernable discipline meted out to Delegate Eric Porterfield, R-Mercer, for incorporating hate speech into comments made in a House committee.

Clearly, Hanshaw has a challenge ahead in selecting Hamrick’s replacement. Current Education Vice Chairman Mark Dean, R-Mingo, is a school principal and former teacher (and WVEA member) who on a number of occasions spoke in opposition to Senate Bill 451, the Senate’s ALEC-drafted education privatization plan.

Under normal circumstances, Hanshaw would simply move Dean up to the chairmanship.

However, promoting Dean would send a message to Senate leaders that the House is no more inclined now than it was in February to pass an extreme education “reform” package. Likewise, passing over Dean for a chairperson who supported SB 451 would be a sign to teachers’ unions and Justice that House leadership is prepared to go to the mat for the Senate plan.

•••

As he frequently does, Justice tried to goad the media Thursday into positive coverage, in this case seeking to strictly focus on the topic at hand, a strong month for state tax collections in April.

“Lots of times, we want to talk about did we buy too many tulips out there?” Justice said, an apparent reference to what some called the “Greenbrierization” of the Capitol grounds during the first two springs and summers that Justice was governor. (Last spring alone, at the governor’s direction, the General Services Division spent an extra $130,000 on flowers, plants and landscaping of the grounds — something that notably was not repeated this spring.)

On Thursday, Justice asked reporters to “fool me today” by confining questions to the good economic news, and not to ask, “what’s going on with the U.S. Attorney or what’s going on with Old White Charities?”

I was pleased to see that Justice’s request was immediately ignored, with the first question from our own Ryan Quinn asking if he thought the state’s $37 million settlement with McKesson Corp. was inadequate.

Of course, Justice brings this on himself by having a completely dysfunctional, unresponsive communications office, so that the only viable way to get answers to questions regarding some of the less pleasant issues regarding the governor’s office are to raise them at the press conferences.

•••

Finally, Swint resolved what long had been a mystery to me: Why the Charmco Building, across from Appalachian Power Park, hasn’t been developed like the other properties around the ballpark, most notably, the warehouses that were converted into luxury condos.

Swint said that despite the ideal location, and what is clearly a sturdily constructed building, the building’s past use makes it a tough sell for developers.

The Charmco Building housed a flour mill, with each floor housing a separate milling process (separating, cleaning, grinding, etc.), starting at the top floor down to take advantage of gravity.

While from the exterior, the Charmco Building looks like it might have housed offices or apartments at one time, Swint said the windows are actually at the top of each floor, which is not ideal for rehabbing as offices or condominiums. (A window has less value when you have to climb a ladder to look out it.)

Also, in order to bear the weight of the heavy equipment on the floors above, the layout of the first floor — which one would think would be perfect for a restaurant, sports bar, or retail — is broken up with multiple support beams, Swint said.

Perhaps some financial incentives are available in order to encourage developers to pursue gutting and rebuilding the interior to make it a viable project.

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazettemail.com,

304-348-1220 or follow

@PhilKabler on Twitter.

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Funerals for Saturday, August 24, 2019

Barron, Dennis - 11 a.m., Airborne Church, Martinsburg.
Baylor, Elizabeth - 1 p.m., Snodgrass Funeral Home, South Charleston.
Bonds Jr., Patrick - 1 p.m., King of Glory International Ministries, Charleston.
Burgess, Corey - 5 p.m., Aldersgate United Methodist Church.
Burns, Helen - 11 a.m., Stump Funeral Home & Cremation, Inc., Grantsville.
Caldwell, Gary - 6 p.m., Long & Fisher Funeral Home, Sissonville.
Casto, Carroll - 1 p.m., Raynes Funeral Home, Eleanor.
Casto, Roger - 2 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Winfield.
Duty, Fred - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.
Fisher, Bernard - 2 p.m., Waybright Funeral Home, Ripley.
Gwinn, Lloyd - Noon, Church of Christ, Craigsville.  
Habjan, Nathan - 1 p.m., Wilson-Smith Funeral Home, Clay. 
Hall, Daniel - Noon, Witcher Baptist Church.
Hinkle, Ethel - Noon, Church of Christ, Craigsville.  
Hoffman, Bruce - 2 p.m., Foglesong - Casto Funeral Home, Mason.  
Kinder, Siegel - 1 p.m., Leonard Johnson Funeral Home, Marmet.
Kyler, Virgil - 11 a.m., Pleasant Grove Cemetery, Reedy.
Palmer, William - 1 p.m., Barlow Bonsall Funeral Home, Charleston. 
Raynes Sr., Steven - 1 p.m., Tyree Funeral Home, Oak Hill.
Truman, James - 2 p.m., Newton Baptist Church, Newton.
Turner, Keith - Noon, Full Gospel Assembly,  Huntington. 
Webb, Antoinette - 11 a.m., SS Peter and Paul Catholic Church, Oak Hill.
Wilson, Greg - Noon, Roach Funeral Home, Gassaway.
Withrow, James - 1 p.m., Cooke Funeral Home Chapel, Cedar Grove.