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Berkeley County development chief sees new growth

June 21, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- Amid a slumping housing market and soaring fuel prices, the Berkeley County Development Authority's executive director said last week he still expects to be able to announce new investment in the coming months.

"We have every expectation that we will be announcing some new employers prior to the end of the year," Stephen L. Christian said.

Given the impact of fuel costs on transportation, Christian believes the county's location in the mid-Atlantic region along the Interstate 81 corridor still bodes well for future economic development.

"I'd like to take advantage of our proximity to the Northern Virginia technology market," Christian said.

The high growth area around Dulles International Airport is within "easy striking distance" for the county to attract spillover, professional service businesses, Christian said.

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Christian said he was excited by developers of the Meridian Pointe project in Martinsburg's north end to build a 70,000-square-foot building for Class A office and retail space.

"It's very chicken and egg," Christian said of the typical need for an anchor tenant to finance such a project. The project is part of a district that the City of Martinsburg hopes is developed along with the construction of North Raleigh Street to Edwin Miller Boulevard.

The development authority has its own infrastructure needs at the Tabler Station Business Park, the $4.1 million purchase that authority leaders approved in December 2003.

The development site near Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport and Exit 8 of Interstate 81 south of Martinsburg is considered a prime location, but investment only has trickled in since the first purchase by A&S Warehousing Distribution in March 2004. Purchases by the 167th Federal Credit Union and 84 Lumber are the only other private investments in the business park. In 2006, the Berkeley County Commission converted a loan to the development authority to purchase 8.6 acres for an emergency services/law enforcement center.

Construction of an east-west "connector" through the business park between I-81 and U.S. 11 was to begin this year and be completed in 2009, according to information that Christian said he received from the West Virginia Department of Transportation.

"We're very excited about that," Christian said. "That's going to provide a significant improvement."

While infrastructure still falling is into place at Tabler Station, Christian said the development authority will be resuming operation of a program to monitor the health of existing industry and investment. Some of that investment has suffered with the slump in housing, Christian said, pointing to layoffs earlier this year at Guardian Fiberglass, a producer of siding for homes.

Included in the development authority's budget for 2008-09 is money for hiring someone to work with existing industries, Christian said.

"It's an important program for us to have up and running," Christian said.

In addition to adding staff for the coming year, the development authority budgeted for moving its offices to 300 Foxcroft Ave. in Martinsburg from the city-owned Market House building downtown.

According to the development authority's $359,106 operating budget for the next fiscal year, $33,000 was allocated for rent as part of a full-service lease with East Coast Realty Ventures. Another $161,000 was allocated for salaries and wages, an amount that exceeds the combined contributions by the Berkeley County Commission and the Martinsburg City Council.

The authority's new lease agreement for 1,500 square feet of space includes utility and cleaning bills, and the office suite also includes a boardroom for meetings. Last year, the development authority budgeted $2,400 in rent for the Market House space, but that arrangement didn't include utilities, according to city records.

Through a generous arrangement, Christian said the development authority needed to be in a building that complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act and also conveyed a modern atmosphere of doing business in the 21st century.

"I negotiated a pretty aggressive deal," Christian said.

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