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Full park is a CHIEF success

November 18, 2007|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU

WILLIAMSPORT - More than three decades ago, the nation's largest manufacturer of PVC pipe looked at a piece of old farmland and a half-completed road near Williamsport.

And CertainTeed Products Corp. chose it - over land in 29 other communities - as the site of its new Piping and Plastics Industries Division plant.

CertainTeed's 1971 decision was the first confirmation of the potential of an experiment by the new Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation, known as CHIEF, to buy 412 acres and develop it as a business park.

Since then, 24 other companies have said "yes" to buying land in CHIEF's Interstate Industrial Park. And with the sale recently of the park's last 12 acres, the vision for that land is complete.

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In all, the industrial park employs 1,691 people - more than a fourth of the jobs created there and at the three CHIEF business parks that followed it.

"CHIEF's initial vision of making sure we had ample industrial sites for companies to locate on was very good," said Timothy Troxell, executive director of the county's Economic Development Commission (EDC). "Their ability to go out and assemble large parcels of ground for businesses here really helped shape who we are."

The vision opened in the late 1950s.

Although it would continue to build airplanes here for more than two decades, Fairchild, the county's main economic engine for years, was faltering.

Its work force "went from 10,000 employees to less than a thousand," recalled Merle Elliott, a local businessman who now is CHIEF's chairman of the board.

"We were kind of a basket case," Elliott said. "What could we do to bring industry in?"

Elliott, together with several other business leaders and the Chamber of Commerce, mobilized to find answers. With support from local governments, Maryland lawmakers passed legislation allowing the county to form the EDC.

CHIEF, itself, officially came into being in February 1960.

The industrial foundation's immediate goal was "to raise seed money to attract industry. We raised something over $200,000 - which would be significantly more in today's dollars," Elliott said.

Then one day, people representing a heavy-truck manufacturer interested in moving its big plant out of Plainfield, N.J., walked into the Chamber office here, Elliott said.

The Chamber's director referred the Mack Trucks representatives to the newly formed EDC. Working with it and local government, a site was purchased in Hagerstown, and in June 1960, Mack announced plans for a huge factory that has employed thousands of local workers since then.

Excitement at attracting Mack "gave rise to the idea that, 'Gee, if we have industry come in (looking), we ought to be able to work with them,'" Elliott said.

So it wasn't long before CHIEF was buying farmland from the Doub family, and later from the Porterfield family, along Interstate 81 for the new Interstate Industrial Park, said Elliott, who was CHIEF's president for more than 20 years.

After CertainTeed bought 40 acres of it in February 1971, others began to follow until there remained just one parcel inside the original industrial park.

Those 12 acres recently were purchased by Interstate Batteries of the Potomac Valley, which is building a warehouse and offices there and hopes to move from its current Beaver Creek Road site by next spring.

"It's got great interstate access, which is great for us," said owner Brandon Shank, who has customers in four states.

Shank's decision fills the park's last vacancy, although a 10- or 11-acre "orphan" property formed by road construction just outside the park still is owned by CHIEF.

Not for long, perhaps.

"That is actively being considered by a significant local company right now," said Richard Phoebus, CHIEF's president and chief executive officer. He said he expects the company to decide whether to buy the property by next spring.

Interstate Industrial Park is the second of CHIEF's business parks to reach capacity. First to be full, as of about five years ago, was the 70/81 Industrial Park, which attracted such companies as DOT Foods and Sealy Mattress Co., to 180 acres off Md. 63 near Williamsport.

CHIEF has two parcels left to sell in its Newgate Industrial Park off Hopewell Road adjacent to I-81 near Hagerstown. And it has two tracts left unoccupied in its Airport Business Park off U.S. 11 north of Hagerstown Regional Airport.

The airport park's largest occupant is Citicorp, which employs more than 2,400 people here.

Several companies have been interested in the park's two remaining parcels, each about 20 acres, Phoebus said. But CHIEF has fended off most of those because the land "is such prime quality" that the goal is to attract a corporate or regional office headquarters, he said.

Indeed, "prior to 9/11, we had a significant buyer, a worldwide business involving manufacture of equipment and their business fell off so badly ... they asked to be let off" the contract, Phoebus said.

Not wanting the land to sit idle for several years, CHIEF agreed, he said.

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