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Staunton leaders consider tweaks to development plan

The Top Story by Chris Graham

Dickie Bell hates thinking that he might have been prescient when he raised objections to the proposed economic-development plan that was eventually adopted by Staunton City Council in 2002 that put the bulk of the focus of the city’s development efforts on the retail and tourism sectors.

“But just looking at the figures – our sales-tax revenues and our lodging taxes and our meals taxes – I’d say that if you take a realistic look at those bottom lines, then you’d have to have some concern about the direction that we’re headed in,” said Bell, a member of Staunton City Council.

Bell told The Augusta Free Press that he wants city-council members to revisit the economic-development plan in light of recently released projections that have Staunton falling short of what the city had expected to receive in sales-tax revenues and lodging and meals taxes for fiscal year 2005-2006 – which is something that Bell feels is indicative of a larger problem.

“How much retail is there? How much big-box retail is there?” Bell said. “Waynesboro has theirs, and Harrisonburg isn’t that far away – and the population and the salaries here can only support so much. I think we’re pretty much maxxed out on it in the Augusta County area – and unless we have a huge influx of people, that’s not going to change.

“There are other things that we need to be looking at and other directions that we need to be going in – or at least have dialogue about,” Bell said.

“As far as I’m concerned right now, this is a flawed plan,” Bell said.

Bell wants the city to modify the development plan to emphasize efforts to more actively seek out industrial and manufacturing prospects. But as vice mayor David Metz points out, this is something that is easier said than it is done.

“We’re not going to adopt a policy saying that we’re not going to do everything that we can to attract and land those types of jobs. But I think the reality is that we’re going to have a more difficult challenge in the future for those jobs,” Metz told the AFP.

Being successful in the business of attracting manufacturing prospects often means being successful in offering the best economic-incentive packages to those prospects – and Metz isn’t sure that localities always get the best bang for their buck with that in mind.

“Typically what happens is the economic incentives that you need to attract these industrial and manufacturing jobs makes it a net negative – and I’m not of the opinion that you offer incentives that far exceed the economic gain. Everything should be an investment – and if the investment is never recouped, I’m not sure if you’re not better off doing nothing,” Metz said.

The city has done well with regard to its commitment to and relationship with one industrial manufacturer, Specialty Blades – a medical- and industrial-blade outfit that employs 65 people and is located in the city’s Green Hills industrial park.

Robin Sullenberger, the executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Partnership, which provides marketing and business assistance to localities in the Central Shenandoah Valley region in relation to their development activities, said economic developers up and down the Valley tout Specialty Blades “as one of the marquee players in technology-driven manufacturing.”“Their presence shows that it is certainly not impossible for Staunton to attract those kinds of industries. The challenge is related to what we have in the pipeline in terms of opportunity,” Sullenberger told the AFP.City-council member Bruce Elder notes another opportunity staring Queen City leaders in the face in the form of the possible future redevelopment of the Western State Hospital campus located near the nexus of Interstate 64 and Interstate 81.“We have a great opportunity to do a lot of that now that this Western State property is going to be opened up for development. A study will probably be commissioned that will look into all of those different economic possibilities – and there’s an opportunity on that property to do some light retail and locate professional offices,” Elder said.

“That property is going to offer a lot in the way of opportunity – and it’s really just going to be a matter of picking ones that best suit our city and best suit the needs of employers,” Elder told the AFP.Mayor Lacy King is also excited about the prospects for the WSH property and other economic opportunities that might be on the horizon in the Queen City in the coming months. But that said, though, King agrees with Bell that now might be a good time to revisit the 2002 economic-development plan.

“That policy is several years old, and it’s served us well – but we do have a lot of growth going on here that we haven’t had in the past several years, particularly in the housing part of it,” King told the AFP.



“I think it’s a good idea that you keep reviewing what you have – and I would certainly welcome that. I think any community would be wise to keep reviewing their policies to make sure that they’re up to date,” King said.

Bell wants to begin this review soon – and thinks the timing of the discussion, with two new members of city council getting settled into their jobs, and a decision on the appointment of a new city manager looming, couldn’t be better.

“We’re certainly not in a panic mode – but I would expect that the other folks, both the new people on the council and those who have been there for a while, would at least like to take a look at it. We may not agree on the assessment of it, and we may not agree on the approach – but I get the feeling that everybody would be willing to sit down and re-examine things,” Bell said.

(Originally published 08-28-06)