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Sunday Sit-Down: Don Rigby

April 1, 2012
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

-- Before this week, many people in the local area had likely never heard of the Regional Economic Development Partnership, formerly known as the Ohio Valley Industrial and Business Development Corp. Can you briefly explain the organization's purpose and exactly what it is you do?

Rigby: Our purpose really is to do economic development in Ohio, Marshall and Wetzel counties. We do represent three counties. In its simplest form, (our purpose) is to keep what you have, and attract new jobs and investment in these three counties.

-- Can you give some examples of projects that you've done?

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Rigby: We've been involved in ... hundreds of projects on an annual basis. The Orrick project, we negotiated that. We also have the Stone & Thomas building and Williams Lea that's in there, we had Vista Research but they're now out. Those are a few of the projects. Originally (one of our projects) was Ferraloy Wheeling that we bought and developed on spec, the former (Blaw Knox) Roll Shop. The CertainTeed project in Marshall County would be one of ours ... we're also heavily involved in natural gas projects as well as some work with Bayer and PPG.

-- How is RED funded? Do you receive any tax dollars?

Rigby: We receive some direct tax dollars, but as far as our budget goes ... 95 percent of our income is self-generated. We really run a business or businesses. We run loan programs, we do SBA loans all over West Virginia ... we run two revolving loan programs. ... We run a microloan program, and we own real estate. We try to find that niche in the real estate market, Orrick is the perfect example. You couldn't draw up Orrick in the private sector. The deal had to be better than that because of the competition out there. So we own that building (the Wheeling Stamping Building), developed that building, so real estate is a piece of our income stream. We receive support from the business community far in excess of what we get in government funds.

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-- Let's talk about the Wheeling Nailers purchase. What was the purchase price paid for the team?

Rigby: We have not gotten the OK to release that price. I will tell you that the league and the Brooks worked with us very closely, so it was probably less than other hockey teams. ... It was a good deal, a fair price for what we were purchasing.

-- How did RED's mission lead the organization to become part of the ownership group now known as the Hockey Club of the Ohio Valley? How does that fit with your portfolio?

Rigby: It's a different deal for us, that's for sure. But again, the first rule of development is to keep what you have. Wheeling really is recognized ... as the center of this region. ... Our board made a commitment to downtown Wheeling, in fact we hired a person to do downtown.

We don't know of a strong region that doesn't have a strong core. It fits into that. We have made a commitment to invest money in downtown Wheeling in sort of (a) non-traditional way for us. ... Quality of life issue, we think it fits in and that really does play a role in how you attract investment.

-- During the announcement, it was stressed that no tax dollars were used in the team's purchase. Do you see any scenario in the future where the ownership group would have to go to the city or another public body for assistance?

Rigby: It's not anything we would anticipate, but I hate to sit here and tell you that we'd never do anything. But again, if you look back, we've committed our dollars into downtown and into projects in the region. There's other commitments that we've made in other counties that we'll be following up on. And really, those are dollars that we have generated over the years. This organization goes back to the 1920s. The vast majority of the dollars here are private dollars. ... We would anticipate that if we have to fund losses ... we'll do it out of current funds. We don't anticipate going to anybody.

-- The Nailers have been in Wheeling for 20 years. What do you think it's going to take to make the club successful not just in the short term, but for the long haul?

Rigby: We've done a couple things. We've worked really closely with the Greater Wheeling Sports and Entertainment Authority, we worked with the city, we've done some things on the lease, we've opened some new avenues. We have to look at what we're doing, what we're paying for, how that's done. We're looking at the operations from that standpoint.

We're also looking at what's been done with corporate support. They've had great corporate support but we think that can be improved. But more than anything else ... we have to get people into the building. That's the bottom line. There are a lot of intricacies in running this operation, but if you actually look at their profit and loss statement and their cash flow, it's pretty simple: it's corporate sponsorships, it's people through the gates that are your sources of revenue. We have to work on those ... and improve on them.

-- Exactly how will the Hockey Club of the Ohio Valley operate the Nailers? Will RED have any day-to-day say in the team's management?

Rigby: It will primarily be finances. Our strength and background is in running businesses, being able to look at what's good business and bad and how you improve. We anticipate that will by far be the majority of our role. Hockey operations and running a business cross a bit. ... We're looking at how we do that best and understand the business better.

-- The current staff that works for the Nailers. Do you plan on leaving that group in place or will you look to absorb those positions as a way to cut costs?

Rigby: The true answer is that we don't know. We've gone over to try and figure out what everyone does. We're looking at all staff. Currently, they would have to be rehired because the organization they work for will not exist (after this season). We haven't made any determinations.

-- You've been able to negotiate a new lease with WesBanco Arena, one that the ECHL commissioner said is in line with other teams in the league. What changes did you request from the Greater Wheeling Sports and Entertainment Authority from the lease the Brooks brothers operated with to what you'll be operating under next season?

Rigby: I guess the first is that we'll be paying a little bit less. ... We've looked at everything: we've looked at how ticketing is done, we've looked at fees for ticketing ... we're looking at concessions, how that's going to be done. The talks will be ongoing, we really put this (deal) together in a matter of weeks. Our negotiations have been good, they need to continue, and it is a more favorable lease than what the Brooks had. And candidly, the lease is one of the key factors in whether we're going to be successful or not.

-- Let's talk about downtown Wheeling. You've recently hired JoElle Ennis to be your downtown marketing coordinator. Can you give our readers an honest assessment of downtown Wheeling at the current time - its appearance, its potential and exactly how you can market it to firms looking for office space?

Rigby: ... I think everyone realizes (downtown) needs improvement. I think the city stepping up and tearing down some buildings that are past being saved is a big step forward. I think we are looking at building off of, as other successful communities have, the river we have here, the port that we have here and the entertainment that we have here. We also think, and we've done a study on this, we're looking at housing. Every successful city, particularly for the age group that we're looking at, young professionals live in downtown. We don't have a lot of that. I don't believe we'll be building (housing), but can we (incentivize) it? Can we make it attractive enough for the private sector to build some housing on the river? So housing, I think, is a component. Entertainment is a component. And then the cleanup that the city has started, we think is very positive and we need to build upon that. ...

-- Do you believe, at the current time, that there is a clear vision for what downtown Wheeling needs to be?

Rigby: We're working on it. First of all, it's developing, I believe, and we're putting emphasis and effort into it. ... We've talked about it at length with our executive committee and at the staff level. We think we're getting buy in from the governmental entities and we think it's pretty well in line. People don't realize how many people actually work in downtown Wheeling. It's a very large number. We need to add to that, and that's why we have bought and developed the Stone Center ... and we think we can replicate what we've done with Orrick and Williams Lea. Competition's tough and tight out there, especially in this tough economy.

... We don't believe (downtown) is ever going to be the retail center it was before. ... That isn't the way retail is done anymore. We think we can be service, we think we can do housing, we think we can produce jobs in downtown and we think that will be the core of our downtown.

-- One of the bigger projects the organization has undertaken is the Stone Center in downtown Wheeling, which took about $6 million to refurbish. Currently, two floors are occupied. How would you rate the success of that project?

Rigby: It's not where we need it to be, that's for sure. We did have Vista in for a while, we did take a little bit of a risk and had them in for two years, so we do have a little bit of build-out space. Candidly, it's not been what we wanted to gauge it a success today. But, again, annually we're putting marketing dollars into it. We're trying something different now, we're going with a company that guarantees us five qualified leads that will do a back-office operation in the next 18 months. ... We also think right now you're seeing a couple of different things. You're seeing the onshoring, really the Orrick model, coming back. We think we have some opportunities to do some things at Stones. It is a very competitive marketplace now, if you're bringing jobs anywhere into the country, people are rolling out the red carpet and making some really strong deals. That's one of the reasons we bought Stones. We could have had that building full today if we'd taken businesses from within the city that wanted to locate there, but that's just shuffling the deck. ... We think it's going to take time, and it's going to take some effort, particularly in this down economy.

-- By all accounts, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe's Global Operations Center here in Wheeling has been a big success - one that RED helped facilitate. Why hasn't the local area been able to capitalize on that success story by landing more back-office operations?

Rigby: You've seen a little bit, Williams Lea is really a direct spin-off of Orrick. ... We've gotten some national recognition (with Orrick), and it's simply getting out and getting people to pull the trigger to come back. We show back-office property around the community ... nearly weekly. It's just one, getting companies to make that choice and two, being competitive enough to draw them.

We've got a person on staff who does nothing but workforce, which is somewhat non-traditional. ... We've got some challenges, whether that's in the gas industry or in the back office industry, with workforce. We're blessed within the three-state region that we have a lot of people that live within 50 miles, but we need to make sure we're working with West Virginia Northern (Community College), West Liberty (University) and Wheeling Jesuit (University) on a regular basis to make sure we're training people for the jobs that we can produce. There has been a bit of a disconnect between the jobs that are available and the education levels that some people get to.

-- We now have a professional hockey team in our area with a different ownership structure, and we also have a shopping center about 10 miles from here that's owned by a public entity. From a development standpoint, are you concerned with the lack of private dollars that seem to be willing to come into our communities, which in turn causes public entities to have to shoulder more of the burden?

Rigby: We wish it was different. ... We wish we could attract more private dollars, and that's one of our goals. We're working toward that. ... What we have to do as a region is be attractive to those private dollars. ... We have to make sure that whatever we do, whether that's through taxation, our laws, or the things we do internally in our communities, that people believe they can make money in our community. We work pretty hard on that end of the spectrum also. ... We have found many of us stepping out into roles ... that in other areas the private sector does step into.

-- How disappointed were you when Shell announced its cracker plant in Pennsylvania?

Rigby: Pretty disappointed. We worked for a long time, in fact we thought we had one a year ago to come to our region. ... I will tell you that I think the governor and the state made the very best pitch possible. ... It's a competitive marketplace, and when you have a company with an existing plant that's vacating it, that has all of the things that you need, it's hard for a company not to take that. Sites for the gas industry are a challenge for us. ... We're going to work on cracker number two and have had some discussions with folks. ... We think we'll build off of it, there's some things we can do.

-- Your organization has been heavily involved in bringing natural gas processing plants and other industry to Marshall County. How do you think the region has done in taking advantage of the Marcellus Shale boom?

Rigby: I'd give us a little above average, but not where we need to be. It's hard to be satisfied. You're seeing some things that Caiman has done, that Dominion has done. From the investment side, we're way ahead of the game. It's something for all of us to adjust to when people start throwing out billions. ... Our challenge ... will be to bring some additional downstream (business), the cracker being the perfect example but not the only example. One of the things we need to look at is again, we have the cheapest gas in the world now, so all of those energy intensive, heavy gas users that left our shores or our region, we've begun to look at, to target them to come back. So it's not just gas, it's people that use gas. We've had discussions with folks about everything from making electricity with gas to heavy industrial users that we could look to bring back to the valley. So those are the kinds of things that we have to look forward to, and those decisions with big companies don't happen quickly, but we and the West Virginia Development Office, and the governor's office, are talking about a lot of those things.

 
 

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