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Trails are among intiatives in line for added funds

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Picture a walking/bicycling trail that spans Henry County, from the new Philpott Marina to the Smith River Sports Complex.

Picture groups such as scout troops or church members hiking on the trail and then camping near the marina or holding a cookout at the sports complex. Picture people coming to the area to hike on the trail and then spending their money at local businesses before returning to their homes.

That is what officials with The Harvest Foundation and the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. envision when they talk about connecting the area’s existing trails to make one long path to foster growth in the area.

Accelerating that work is part of what will be funded with a $6 million grant that Harvest has awarded to the EDC for the next three years.

The EDC would provide funds to Henry County and the Dan River Basin Association (DRBA) for the project.

“Henry County and DRBA have done a great job. We want them to get to the goal line, to connect the dots” of the various trails in the area, said EDC President/CEO Mark Heath, adding that the model is the Virginia Creeper Trail in southwest Virginia.

It may not be possible to complete the project in three years, but additional funds can speed up the work, which includes sections as complicated as a river crossing, Heath said.

He noted that the EDC is not building the trails. “We’re just bringing funds to help accelerate what these organizations are already doing because we think it’s important. The trail system was not our idea, but it’s a huge asset.”

Research shows that trails probably are one of the most important features in attracting people to an area where they spend money and then go home, Heath said, referring to that as “clean development.”

Harvest Foundation President Allyson Rothrock said the EDC’s director of tourism, Jennifer Doss, has said that before the marina was built this year, nearly 700,000 people traveled through the Bassett area on Virginia 57 each year. Rothrock said that is an opportunity for growth.

The Harvest grant is double what the EDC received for the past three years. Other areas it will help fund are:

• The EDC’s move to the New College Institute’s new facility being constructed on the Baldwin Block. This will double the EDC’s rent — Heath would not provide figures for that and other specific areas — from its current location in the SunTrust building uptown, he said. But it will let the EDC show prospective companies the collaboration between business and education and the kinds of training that can be done here, he said.

• Create a grant pool for existing “legacy” industries — those that have been here many years — to supplement state and local incentives. Heath said that is needed because 66 percent of the EDC’s deals since 2006 involved existing industries (33 of 50 deals).

Sometimes the return on investment of projects with those types of companies is not enough to qualify for state or tobacco commission incentives, he said. Also, providing such grants would let the companies know they and the jobs they provide are valued here, he said, adding that the EDC does not want those companies recruited away from this area.

• Create a “deal closing” fund to supplement state and local incentives. Heath said this can help new companies cover some costs, such as for moving equipment, that are not funded under other grant sources.

“Sometimes adding on (funds) makes a company realize how much we want them,” he said. “We have missed deals we wanted desperately. A little extra money at the end might have made a difference.”

• Provide “seed funding” to attract specific specialty retail development. Heath said that could help establish a retail business near something like the Smith River Sports Complex, for example.

• Create a loan pool for entrepreneurial small businesses. Heath said the loans would be below the market interest rate and would help startup companies, which often have trouble getting funding.

He added that requests for grants will be vetted by himself and the EDC executive committee, and must be approved by the EDC board. A separate EDC committee will be set up, with legal, banking, accounting and other representatives, to consider loan requests, he said.

• Provide additional funds to improve gateways into the community. Heath said he constantly hears from consultants, and sometimes prospects, that “this is a great place with a lot of great people, but they don’t take care of it. ... They all say we need to do things to improve” the appearance of the area, especially on U.S. 220 north and south and U.S. 58 east and west.

• Provide annual increases in each EDC division — traditional marketing, tourism and small business — to ensure they have the resources to accomplish their missions.


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