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Salaries up by nearly $6,000 in Panhandle

January 30, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Average annual salaries in the Eastern Panhandle have increased by up to $5,971, an obvious plus for the work force, but also a critical factor in generating new tax revenue to prepare the area for growth, state and local economic officials said.

The increase can be attributed to the growth of well-paying jobs in the business, legal and medical fields, experts said.

The salary jumps can also be attributed to Eastern Panhandle residents who are working in nearby metropolitan cities and earning higher salaries, said Steve Shackelford, a supervisor in the state Bureau of Employment Programs in Charleston.

People are being attracted to the Panhandle because of the area's lower taxes, abundance of land, and good transportation systems, Shackelford said.

The salary jumps are important for local government, too, said Shackelford.

The extra money builds the local tax base, which helps pay for new roads, expansion of utilities and other improvements.

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"That area over there is ripe for development," Shackelford said.

With the growing tax base, it is important that the Panhandle begin concentrating on services that will be vital to the area's success, such as a well-designed, high-tech infrastructure, said Morgan County Commissioner Phil Maggio.

"It's the Eastern Panhandle's period in time. If we don't grasp it, we're fools," Maggio said.

Between 1990 and 1997, the average annual income in Berkeley County increased from $19,254 to $25,225. The $5,971 jump was the highest among the three Panhandle counties and exceeded the state average of $24,715, according to statistics.

During the same time period, Jefferson County's average annual income increased from $16,939 to $20,800 and Morgan County's went from $15,461 to $19,043, according to Shackelford.

The figures are based on workers that are covered under the state's unemployment compensation law, which is about 95 percent of the work force, said Shackelford.

The growth of well-paying jobs is evident in practically every sector, said Judy Faul, executive director of the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Chamber of Commerce.

The only industry in the Panhandle that could be facing a tricky future is retail, particluarly the area's outlet shopping industry, said Faul.

Last year's opening of two major outlet shopping centers in the region will divert shoppers from Martinsburg, but it is too early to tell what other effects the competition could cause, said Faul. Prime Outlets at Hagerstown opened last year, offering 80 stores such as The Gap, Nike and Tommy Hilfiger. To the south, Leesburg Corner Premium Outlets in Leesburg, Va., opened with 60 stores.

But expected industrial growth in Berkeley County could stave off any threat to the local outlet industry, said Ken Green, executive director of the Region 9 Planning and Development Council.

The current construction of three major industries at the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport could be enough to create a new class of consumers to beef-up the area's retail trade, said Green. The three projects include the TLM airplane maufacturing plant, the Sino-Swearingen jet plant and a clothing distrubution plant being built by S. Schwab Co.

Together, the three plants are expected to employ up to 840 people.

Green said the expected influx of consumers in coming years represents a "pull and push" effect that is typical in economies.

"You have an evolution of business and industry," Green said.

Jefferson County officials said the rise in average income in that area can be partly attributed to the continued large number of people who commute out of the county for work.

Close to 50 percent of Jefferson County residents commute, officials said.

Jefferson County Commissioner James G. Knode said the profile of the county has not changed much, although the retail industry has expanded, as witnessed by the new Jefferson Crossing Shopping Center and a Wal-Mart Supercenter, both located east of Charles Town along U.S. 340.

Coupled with the increase in annual income are very low unemployment rates in the Eastern Panhandle. Morgan County led the state with a 2.3 percent unemployment rate in December, followed by Jefferson County with a 2.8 percent rate and Berkeley County with a 4.1 percent rate.

The state unemployment rate for December was 6 percent, the lowest ever recorded for a December, according to state officials.

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