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W.Va. grants still in limbo

September 10, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

If an attorney gets his way and Economic Development Grant Committee grants are converted to low-interest loans that must be paid back, Martinsburg Roundhouse officials probably would say thanks but no thanks.

"I think that we would probably not take the money if we were supposed to pay it back," said Bill Hayes, executive director of the Martinsburg Roundhouse Authority. "We're expecting a grant. If we're going to go get a loan, we'd negotiate the terms."

The Roundhouse was awarded a $2.75 million grant. The money is to be used to build an elevated pedestrian bridge connecting the Caperton Train Station to the Roundhouse complex, Hayes has said. Currently, railroad tracks and a chain-link fence separate the two.

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A petition filed Tuesday by Jackson County, W.Va., attorney Larry Harless on behalf of the Rev. Jim Lewis contends that state law forbids private entities from directly receiving grants of state funds.

The petition says the funding should be treated as loans instead of grants.

"The law says these are supposed to be loans. These grants don't create jobs or even retain jobs. ... It is money going into the pockets of big business," Lewis said Tuesday.

The Roundhouse Authority was one of three local organizations to be awarded grants. Jefferson County Board of Education officials were granted $6 million to help build a second high school, while Eastern Regional Airport was awarded $1.2 million to help with construction of a new terminal. Statewide, 50 projects were awarded grants.

None of the grant money has been doled out.

Plans for building the new airport terminal rely, in part, on the grant.

"We can't start the project until the money is free and clear," Rick Wachtel, chairman of the Eastern Regional Airport Authority, previously said.

The Federal Aviation Administration has promised to hold $600,000 in matching funds until it can "reasonably assume" the grant will come through, Wachtel said.

Bid documents for the terminal have been prepared and Wachtel said he had hoped construction would start soon. Depending on the weather, construction of the $3 million terminal is expected to take 12 to 15 months. A basement and a parking ramp already have been built.

In Jefferson County, the grant also will not be the sole source of funding, since a second high school is expected to cost $30 million to $32 million to build. Voters will be asked to approve a bond call in May and school officials plan to seek additional funding from the School Building Authority.

Impact fees are another possible source of funding, said Lori Stilley, president of the school board.

Whether the funding comes through or not, Hayes said the Roundhouse will be restored. The grant would expedite the project, he has said.

"Regardless of how the court resolves the other individual issues involved here, of paramount importance is for all private corporations and persons who directly or indirectly benefit economically from these state monies to pay back to the state at low interest over time the financial equivalent of such economic benefit," the petition reads.

The petition is in addition to a lawsuit that Harless plans to file on behalf of two anti-gambling groups, targeting the state's video lottery.

An earlier lawsuit Harless filed on behalf of the West Virginia Citizen Action Group challenged the legality of the grant committee itself. That lawsuit resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that declared the original committee's makeup violated the constitutional separation of powers. The committee had to be reconstituted and go through the project selection process again.

Grants awarded in August by the revamped committee include $35 million for a Cabela's retail and distribution center near Wheeling, $12 million for a minor league baseball park in Charleston and $10.6 million for the Pullman Square urban revitalization project in Huntington.

Lewis said the grants are concentrated in Charleston, Wheeling and Huntington, while Wirt County, which had the state's highest unemployment rate in July of 18.4 percent, received nothing.

"This is not real honest to God economic development. It's a giveaway program," Lewis said.

"The last thing we need in West Virginia now is more minimum wage jobs."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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