County Seeks Partnership With State for Highlands Interchange

WHEELING – Now that the West Virginia Legislature has approved bills to give Ohio County leaders the financial means to build a second interchange at The Highlands, county commissioners want the state to partner with them by purchasing the bonds they will sell to complete the project.

The legislature approved Senate Bill 439, expanding the Tax Incremental Financing District at The Highlands from 300 to 500 acres. TIF is a tool that allows local governments to borrow money by selling bonds for development projects in a defined district, then using future sales tax generated through the development to pay off the bonds.

SB 439 passed both legislative chambers unanimously, and presently awaits the signature of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. Ohio County commissioners fully expect Tomblin to sign the bill.

Commissioner Randy Wharton, who also serves as president of the Ohio County Development Authority, said the engineering and design plans for the interchange are completed, but need to be finalized.

“We have expended a considerable amount of cash in that regard, so now it becomes an issue of permitting and funding,” he said.

“I would hope the state would take on the entire project – the construction of it, including the permitting. At some point, we may want to talk to the state, and see if they might have any inclination to participate in the purchase of bonds. They might want to purchase some or all of them. Because in the end… we’ll have to pay that back, and it’s going to go to them anyway. They get a little return on that investment. It is a good partnership for them, and it might make the project move a little more quickly if they take on the permitting and all the construction.

“It might make it happen faster if we can produce the retail tenants and produce the sales tax revenue to get started. Then, if the state can close the deal, then the sooner all of it is paid back, and the sooner the state will get all the money.”

Wharton said once the project is completed, its scope could also be expanded to improve the transportation on Middle Creek Road below Interstate 70. The county owns the property at the bottom of the slope, and constructing an access road there would open up the area for future development, according to Wharton.

Wharton also has some concerns about obtaining the needed permits for the projects amid objections from adjacent property owners.

“In the history of this country, interchanges have been built for the betterment of communities,” Wharton said. “No one can go anywhere without a good road system, and no feasible, viable business can exist without utilities and roads.

“What we’re trying to do there is to improve the community and the business climate – not only for The Highlands, but the entire county. So we feel any unnecessary obstructions to the lawful applications for permits should be struck down by regulatory agencies, and not be given any unnecessary attention.”