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Heath: Permit fight may loom over Commonwealth Crossing

Thursday, October 11, 2012

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Legal action will be pursued if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers refuses to issue an environmental permit needed to develop Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre, according to the area’s chief economic developer.

In preparing for the area’s economic comeback, “too much is at stake” for the industrial park not to be developed, said Mark Heath, president and CEO of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. (EDC).

Also, the project is too far along to be discontinued, he indicated.

The park is to be developed off U.S. 220 South near the North Carolina line. Officials have said it could become home to either a large company needing a lot of land on which to build a plant or multiple smaller companies.

Henry County has received a Virginia Department of Environmental Quality permit needed for site preparation work, such as grading and building roads, at Commonwealth Crossing.

Yet an effort to get a permit from the Corps of Engineers, which administers federal clean water laws, is stalled because the corps does not like to provide permits for industrial parks with no committed tenants, officials have said.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and 5th District U.S. Rep. Robert Hurt, R-Chatham, have offered to set up a meeting in Washington with all pertinent parties to try and move efforts to develop Commonwealth Crossing forward.

A date has not been set, but Heath said the meeting likely will be after the Nov. 6 election.

Heath said he has documented instances in which the Corps of Engineers previously approved permits for industrial parks without a company having announced firm intentions of locating in them.

“We really need to push the corps to say yes or no” to the Commonwealth Crossing permit because site preparation needs to get started there, Heath told Martinsville City Council on Tuesday.

If the corps refuses to approve the permit, “we’ll go to court,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday, indicating that would be the logical next step.

Commonwealth Crossing is vital to local economic development, Heath said.

He presented a report titled “The Case for Commonwealth Crossing” to the council on Tuesday. The report shows that from 1990 through 2011, Henry County and Martinsville lost 18,404 jobs. That is 43 percent of all jobs that had been in the community.

About 80 percent of the community’s manufacturing jobs were lost during that time frame, the report shows.

Furthermore, Martinsville has had the state’s highest unemployment rate — sometimes reaching above 20 percent — for the past 43 months, the report mentions.

Various public and private sources have committed a total of almost $27 million for land acquisition, engineering and environmental costs related to Commonwealth Crossing, according to the report.

It states that the industrial park must be developed in order for the area to attract modern, high-wage jobs to replace those lost in the past 20 years.

Since 2007, the community has lost 17 prospective companies due to “the lack of infrastructure and site development” at Commonwealth Crossing, the report showed. The lost companies represented 8,169 prospective jobs and $5.88 billion in prospective investment, it indicated.

Heath would not identify the 17 companies. Economic developers usually are reluctant to name companies being recruited before deals are reached due to bad publicity that firms could face if they decide not to locate somewhere.

One of the companies, an automotive firm that was being recruited in 2009, was interested in creating as many as 3,000 jobs and investing as much as $3 billion in a local facility over time, according to Heath and the report.

Heath said the company with which the EDC was closest to reaching a deal was a manufacturing firm that was anticipated to create 321 jobs and invest $43.5 million at a local facility.

He told the council that the firm was based in Europe and had a contract with Ford Motor Co. when the EDC was pursuing it in 2008.

But around that time, he said, the economy declined and the company lost its Ford contract, which influenced its decision not to come to Henry County.

“We did everything right,” Heath said of the EDC’s efforts to recruit the firm. “We were just the victim of the economy.”

Still, the report lists the firm — identified with the code name “Mainstream” — as one of the 17 that did not locate in Commonwealth Crossing due to a lack of infrastructure and site development there.

Whoever eventually locates there must have a need for rail service because a railroad runs along the edge of the property, according to Heath.

“We should not waste” the park on companies that do not need rail access, he said.

Many of the $27 million in commitments for Commonwealth Crossing were made with expectations that the industrial park would be for firms that need rail access, he pointed out.

As of Tuesday, the EDC was involved in efforts to recruit 19 new businesses and industries. These include 13 active projects in which company executives have visited the area, another report presented to the council shows.


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