Thursday, August 18, 2022

On The Horizon: Economic Development Directors Discuss 2022

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A pair of local county economic development directors predict the key to a successful new year might come down to real estate.

In the case of York County, Economic Development Director Jim Noel is excited about the potential for the Edge District and the Kings Creek Commerce Center. In neighboring Gloucester County, Economic Development Director Sherry Spring could hardly contain her enthusiasm when discussing the possible sale of a tract of land in Gloucester Business Park as well as the former Page Middle School site.

While they expect labor shortages and supply chain challenges to continue, they are optimistic about 2022. Here’s a closer look at their thoughts.

YORK COUNTY

Noel, who has been the county’s economic development director since 1993, knows many things are out of the county’s control when it comes to economic success.

“We’re subject to the macro-economic trends,” he said. “We’re subject to what goes on at the shipyard. I mean, we’re subject to the national trends in the hospitality industry. Those are the things that are going to drive our local economy.”

That is why he prefers to concentrate on things he and the county can control. The first that comes to mind is the Edge District, which was established in 2019 and is where York County, James City County, and the City of Williamsburg meet on Merrimac Trail.

He wants the local entities to take more of a leadership role in the Edge District Business Association.

“We’ve been putting it together with grants and support from the three EDAs,” he said of the economic development authorities.

He noted there is an Edge District website, a Facebook page, and it has been the recipient of extensive marketing and branding.

“One of my goals this year is to have them take that initiative over completely … and take it forward,” he said. “We have things moving in the right direction.”

As with the Edge District, the other project is a collaborative effort. Six of the 10 members of the Eastern Virginia Regional Industrial Facility Authority (EVRIFA) purchased nearly 450 acres off Penniman Road, the Colonial Parkway, and the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station. About 250 acres will be leased to a solar energy company, the rest will be developed as the Kings Creek Commerce Center.

“We’re going to develop that as a light industrial park,” Noel said. “We’ve got all the utilities there, it’s zoned appropriately, it’s got good access to I-64. That’s an intriguing opportunity.”

He added the six communities involved – York, Isle of Wight, Poquoson, Williamsburg, Hampton, and Newport News – will share in the tax revenue.

“True regional economic development, which is a really good thing on multiple levels,” he said.

Among the challenges he sees for York County in 2022 are the continued labor shortage as well as the effects the pandemic is having on the hospitality sector.

“A major part of our tax base is all associated with hotels and restaurants,” Noel said. “And while the patrons have started to come back … perhaps the bigger issue, frankly, is labor.”

He pointed to Great Wolf Lodge, which is one of the county’s largest taxpayers. He said they are not operating at full capacity because of a labor shortage.

“The demand is there,” he said. “It’s not a problem of having people. People want to be there.”

The pandemic continues to be a factor, he said.

“For whatever reason, covid became a pivot point,” he said. “A lot of people decided they didn’t want to be in this industry.”

He’s not sure if the fallout is over, and wouldn’t be surprised if other hotels or restaurants close.

“That’s probably the single biggest concern moving forward,” he said.

But, again, he stressed it isn’t because of a lack of demand.

“There’s incredible demand,” he said.

Another concern is the continued shift to online shopping.

“We’ve got an ongoing concern about our brick-and-mortar retailers, and keeping that space full,” he said.

At the beginning of the year, Dick’s Sporting Goods did not renew its lease in the Marquis Shopping Center, but no specific reason was cited. Noel said the county might have to change zoning ordinances to transition from retail to other uses when a business leaves.

“That’s going to be a focus, how can we transition and look at productive reuse of our retail spaces,” he said.

Overall, he’s looking to a successful year.

“I’m optimistic,” he said. “Everything that I’m reading tells me the economy will stay strong, relatively speaking.”

GLOUCESTER COUNTY

Across the York River, Spring has great news to share about Gloucester County. She received a phone call last week from a metal recycling company interested in purchasing a 7-acre parcel in Gloucester Business Park.

“Fantastic news,” she said. “That tract of land is probably 25 years old.”

Just a short drive south on Route 17 is another tract of land, this one 25 acres, that finally could be developed. It’s the site of the old Page Middle School, which was hit by a tornado in 2011. Her understanding is the site will be turned over to the county, which, hopefully, will hand it over to the EDA.

If that happens, it will be marketed aggressively. It is listed with the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.

“Being right on 17, it’s a prime location, especially with the wind farm industry,” she said. “I think that is a perfect site for something in the wind farm industry to go there.”

She’s hopeful a decision will be made within two months.

It’s not just commercial real estate that has Spring excited about the new year. She mentioned two residential projects, the Villages of Gloucester, a long-awaited development off Burleigh Road, and Main Street Landing. She’s been told there are waiting lists for both, as well as apartments in River Bend, which is across from Gloucester Business Park.

“People are wanting to move to Gloucester,” Spring said. “And they don’t mind driving other places to go to work.”

 One project the county is concentrating on is upgrading its broadband capabilities. That will benefit businesses and individuals.

“If we can get that one component, broadband, the number of home-based businesses will explode in Gloucester,” Spring said. “You have the quality of life. You have everything in close proximity.”

She said the state is investing money in broadband, and the county has approved upgrades.

“Honestly, broadband is more important than natural gas or rail or an interstate, right now,” she said. “If people can network or you can contact them, then it helps everybody else.”

Even with all that good news, she knows challenges exist, especially when it comes to small businesses, as the pandemic continues.

“The biggest challenge right now is the supply chain,” she said. “I’m hearing restaurants talk about going to Virginia Beach to a restaurant depot to buy supplies.”

Even so, she said the county has fared much better than its neighbors.

“We actually only lost three business because of covid,” she said.

She attributed much of that to support from the community.

“I worked in a lot of places,” said Spring, who has been in her current position since early 2015. “I’ve been in economic development for 26 years, and worked in a lot of stressful places. But people in Gloucester appreciate everything you do. It’s just the best place in the world.”

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of Peninsula Chronicle stories regarding local economic development forecasts.

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