Story by Chris Graham
Waynesboro City Councilman Frank Lucente said the city’s current economic-development strategy “isn’t working.”
His solution for fixing things – better utilize the city industrial-development authority.
“They can do a lot of things that the city council can’t do, like make loans, sell bonds, own property, sell property, lease property. They can operate a lot like the housing authority. My vision is to have a stronger industrial-development authority. I feel that it’s a tool that we have not utilized to its full potential,” Lucente told The Augusta Free Press.
Lucente said his idea is to have the city commit “three or four years of money” to the city IDA – akin to what was done to help get Waynesboro Downtown Development Inc., a nonprofit that is leading the city’s downtown-development effort, off the ground – to relaunch the development authority.
“I wouldn’t be opposed to deeding over the industrial park to the IDA, and let them go forward and seek industry and manufacturing, as their number-one goal, and their number-two goal would be to become financially independent of the council and the city, again like the housing authority,” Lucente said.
Getting to goal number two might prove to be the more difficult. Neighboring Staunton has had an active IDA for several years – but while it owns the Virginia Crossroads Business Park on Commerce Road and has been a key player in projects ranging from the development of the Blackfriars Playhouse to the revitalization of the Stonewall Jackson Hotel, it still relies on city taxpayers for its funding.
“There is a strong relationship between the city government, the department of economic development and the IDA,” said Bill Hamilton, the city’s director of economic development.
Of interest here is that one effect of Lucente’s idea would be to have the Waynesboro IDA – which Lucente envisions being able to hire its own executive director with the contribution of city taxpayer money that it would stand to receive under his proposal – operate independently of the city government and economic-development director Brent Frank.
“We already have an economic-development coordinator whose job it is to take care of these issues. And he has been doing a good job. The IDA should be there to assist him in his job, not competing with him,” mayor Tom Reynolds told the AFP.
“We do need our IDA to be more active. I agree with that. But it should work in concert with what the city is doing,” Reynolds said.
Lucente said the River City “needs to try something a little different” – and foresees a return to Waynesboro’s industrial past being in the offing if city leaders play their cards right.
“We have more manufacturing facilities and industrial infrastructure than our neighbors do. Those are assets that we can take advantage of. And if we can bring manufacturing and industry in here, that can bring jobs, which will raise our median income, and also bring in good tax base,” Lucente said.
That could prove to be easier said than done. Economic-development efforts have long been under way at the state, regional and local levels in Virginia and across the country – and with the advent of the Internet, many potential business suitors are doing their site-selection homework on-line without government entities knowing the first thing about what their plans are or what they’re doing.
“It was not unusual for us 10 years ago to spend two years with a company on a particular project from the initial contact to looking at specific locations,” said Gary McLaren, the deputy director of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.
“But now, as a result of what we call clandestine analysis, companies are doing their own research on the Internet, and when they come to us, they not only have a locality in mind, but in many cases a particular building or two,” McLaren told the AFP.
That can make the job of an economic-development director or IDA executive director more difficult – but Lucente, for one, isn’t thinking about backing down from the challenge.
“We need to be ready to jump on these opportunities when they come up,” Lucente said.
Councilman Reo Hatfield, like Lucente, sees the IDA “being an important part of Waynesboro’s future.”
“They’ve been working under some pretty tight restrictions from the city over the years. We need to free them up and give them the opportunity to move forward, to have some land that it could use to work with potential industrial prospects to attract them to come to the Waynesboro area,” Hatfield told the AFP.
“I’d like to see us move in this direction, and the sooner, the better,” Hatfield said. “We’ve already got our retail sector on its way. There’s not much we can do to facilitate that any more than we have. It has taken on a life of its own, and I would expect that growth to continue. Now we need to focus our efforts on attracting industry to Waynesboro. This has been traditionally one of our strengths as a city, and it could be again.
“Getting the IDA in there working on this should push that forward,” Hatfield said.