CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — Economic developers in Jefferson County are playing a hot hand.
Earlier this month, state officials announced the Danish company ROXUL intends to break ground in October on a stone wool insulation facility that would employ 150 people. It would be the company’s second facility in the United States.
Just a couple of weeks prior to that, developers announced that the North American operations of the Italian company TeMa will build a $10 million plant near Kearneysville and employ about 30 people.
Add to those an earlier investment by Randox Laboratories, a biotech company from Northern Ireland that placed its North American headquarters near Charles Town — bringing 50 jobs along with it — and you realize Jefferson County is on a roll.
“A lot of it’s location, location, location,” said John Reisenweber, director of the Jefferson County Development Authority.
“We’re the only county in West Virginia that’s in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Obviously it’s the seat of power, the seat of government for our country. And the mid-Atlantic region with the number of people who live in this region is an attractant.
“Being 40 minutes from Dulles Airport, 60-70 miles from both D.C. and Baltimore beltways, really does put us in the crosshairs of a lot of interest. We believe we have a value proposition here in Jefferson County. We market the county as a cost-effective alternative to the higher prices and the higher cost of doing business in the Metro area. I think Jefferson County competes very well.”
Based on the strength of its location, plus flat land by West Virginia standards, the Eastern Panhandle’s economy has been relatively robust compared to many other regions of the state.
“Our focus now is on the extreme diversity across West Virginia where some regions are healthy, some are stable and some remain in very difficult economic circumstances,” stated John Deskins, director of the West Virginia University Bureau of Economic Research, earlier this year upon the release of the Mountain State Business Index.
None of the recent investments in Jefferson County by themselves may be home runs, but each is a valuable addition to the local, growing economy in the Eastern Panhandle.
“What we’re seeing is there is a tremendous interest from what we call foreign direct investment — which are international companies looking to get into the United States market,” Reisenweber said.
“They’re looking for places, and we’ve had some good luck as of late.”
He believes other parts of the state may be prime for international investment too.
“I frankly think that’s quite an opportunity for the state of West Virginia as a whole,” he said. “Other parts of the state that are rich in natural gas, there are a lot of international companies that are looking to be in an area like that, whether it’s processing the gas into other products or midstream companies looking to get into the United States market. West Virginia is a good place to do that.”
Reisenweber, a Martinsburg native who has been in his current job for the past five years, says state and local officials may work for years to develop relationships with companies that could invest. But local developers also need to be ready for the moment a company makes its decision.
“There’s a lot of lead time. There’s a lot involved in the recruitment efforts to get an international company located here in West Virginia,” Reisenweber said.
Highways investments and the possibility of natural gas being extended to the region could provide even more incentive for investment, he said.
“Used to be there was a checkbox, and you’d check the boxes for roads, water and sewer. Well, now that list is longer than it used to be. It’s roads, water, sewer, broadband, energy — and those are the infrastructure issues we work on every day.
“Companies are looking for places that are ready to go. They’re looking for available sites that have infrastructure to them already, and the better job we can do getting that infrastructure in place, the better success we’ll have recruiting additional investment.”
ROXUL is an example of a company that had specific infrastructure needs that the county had to help the company meet.
“They were looking for a large rail site. And we’ve had to put together an infrastructure package to get water, sewer, rail spur and gas to that site. The good thing is, that site’s a 400-acre site, and ROXUL will take up about a third of it, so we’ll have the balance of the property already teed up. We’ll have 270 acres right there in Ranson to further develop the economy,” Reisenweber said.
Reisenweber acknowledges that not every attempt to lure a company to Jefferson County is a success. But he says the wins are satisfying.
“It’s tough. The batting average isn’t very good. But you take a lot of satisfaction when you’re able to bring employers into the community or retain existing employers so that folks can have a job and be able to support their families. That’s the part of it I like the most.”