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Sunday Sit-Down: Ohio County Commissioner David Sims

May 6, 2012
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

-- It's been about four years now since we last sat down to talk about the financial shape of The Highlands. At that time, in late 2008, the national economy was in a tailspin and the Ohio County Development Authority found itself in a financial pinch. From a financial standpoint, how is The Highlands faring today?

Sims: The Highlands is actually doing very well financially right now. We were able to get through that crisis in pretty good shape. Our rents exceed our debt payments by over six figures a month. So we have a very good cash flow, all of our debt is well amortized, so we're in a very good position. And now we're starting to see the economy turn and there's a lot of activity particularly with the oil and gas. We feel like right now we're back where we were five years ago and we have a lot of momentum. We're really rolling.

(As for new construction) ... Logan's Steakhouse is probably going to be open in July ... there's going to be another hotel, a Hampton Inn, which if you drive up there now you'll see the sign for. ... We also potentially have a fourth hotel at or near the site. ... The hotel activity is the big thing now, we're getting a lot of calls and interest from companies with professionals who are in the oil and gas industry. They really like The Highlands' location because of its proximity to Pennsylvania and Ohio, they're right in the middle of all that activity on the interstate. We're hoping by summer's end to have some very good announcements about potential new tenants there (that) won't be retail related, these are going to be companies that have people who are professionals, engineering-type jobs. So we hope that continues, because we're starting to see a lot of activity there. ... We continue making those contacts (with the big gas companies and others related to the industry) and trying to bring as many people in as we can.

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-- There has been some criticism of The Highlands, mostly dealing with what some people would see as very good deals for some of the retailers that have located there. How do you answer those critics?

Sims: I'm not sure what the specific criticism is, obviously we got the sales tax increment financing, which we see as a bonus because we created, virtually out of property that produced about $300 to $400 a year in property taxes, we now have about $350 million to $400 million in development all because because we did the sales tax financing for Cabela's. Without that, we'd probably still be sitting there with a piece of land that produces nothing. Now here we are, with 3,000 full-time equivalent jobs later and growing, several hundred million dollars of construction, most of which was done by local trades, there's been an enormous amount of money pumped into the local economy by The Highlands. ... If people are critical of The Highlands, no one's ever personally come to me and said, 'That was a really bad idea.' I don't know what the criticism is, because the taxpayers of the county have not paid - although there's taxpayer dollars involved - we haven't raised property taxes to make The Highlands happen.

-- You are the only county commissioner who has watched The Highlands unfold from its inception in the mid- to late-1990s as the Fort Henry Business and Industrial Center. First, what are your thoughts on how the project has developed, and second, looking back, what, if anything, would you have done differently?

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Sims: There are obviously things you would do differently, I haven't looked back and said, 'Boy, I wish we would have done this differently.' One of the things that we are really focused on now that I wish we would have been a little more aggressive with early on is getting the second interchange.

One of the complaints we get is the traffic, which is always a good complaint to have. The second interchange is becoming a bigger priority as we move along. That will take a lot of the traffic off of Two-Mile Hill. ...

Gov. Tomblin's been very helpful, we've met with him about the second interchange, he was able to help us identify some funding to finish up our engineering studies so that when the money becomes available, we're ready to go. ... When I look back, (the second interchange) is one of the things I wish we had been more aggressive on awhile back, because while we're in the pipeline, it's going to take - even if they said go today, it's going to take two to three years to get that completed.

... Obviously we're proud of what we've done. I told (county Administrator) Greg Stewart very early on we were either going to succeed greatly or fail spectacularly. I think we've come close to both at times.

... When we first got Cabela's I didn't really have a vision of what it would ultimately be other than I just wanted it to grow. The most important thing was to create opportunity. We have some local business owners who are there, we've tried to create opportunities for local people not only to maybe have a business there, but to have a job, have a place to shop. Before The Highlands, you could not buy men's apparel in Ohio County. ... I'd like to see it continue to grow, we've sort of maxed out on the retail and now we're moving on to other things, the AT&T call center, West Liberty campus, the Silgan Plastics building, which is going to be completed very soon, all of the opportunities with oil and gas. Without The Highlands, we'd be dead in the water when those people come to us, we wouldn't have a place for them to go.

-- Ohio County's unemployment rate is 7.6 percent as of March, which lands it about 20th in the state. Without The Highlands, how much worse would the local economy be at the current time? How many jobs have been created here?

Sims: I think it's helped the local economy. Some of the people criticize because they say the jobs aren't good paying jobs. But are we better off not having Cabela's distribution center there? I would say no. That's 500 jobs at the distribution center. That's somebody's employment. It may be a guy going to school and that's his job on the way to a better place. I think we're better off having done all of those things and creating that opportunity than not.

We do have about 3,000 full-time equivalent jobs there. ... What we're looking at now, though, is the jobs that people want to bring in now are no longer the minimum-wage, retail-type jobs, they're more professional. A lot of interest from engineering companies, people who do testing, people who do support for the oil and gas industry. Those are the types of jobs, that if we can continue to grow those, then we have a more balanced development.

-- Wild Escape Theme Park. Is it fair for you to state today that the project will never happen?

Sims: No, I don't think that's fair to say. That project - I think it was in 2006 when we started to move that project forward - unfortunately it took us two years to get the permitting done, and right as we were getting the permitting done the economy collapsed in August 2008. That project just became dormant at that point, and until the economy came back there was no way we were going to be able to do that.

Now, with the way our sales tax bonds have gone - we've been able to pay off some of the bonds early, we've been able to refinance some of the bonds at better interest rates - as long as our sales tax continues to grow and our bonds perform well, we're going to be in a much better position to revisit that project and potentially make it happen. ... We continue to talk to the principals of Wild Escape and we continue to look at the bonding and what capacity we have to do the future projects.

-- Given the current makeup of The Highlands, does a project such as Wild Escape fit in with the overall theme?

Sims: The overall theme - I'm not sure what the overall theme is now. When we started it was destination retail with Cabela's, but the interesting thing we found with Cabela's when we would go to the retail conventions is that no one in the retail industry cared about Cabela's. They said their shoppers are 80 percent male, they spend four hours in the store and then they go home. They wanted to see Wal-Marts, and Targets, and those sorts of things, where more female shoppers come and you have a more diverse market. So we did those sorts of things.

The original theme from its inception was to mimic Southpointe. Then we got Cabela's and said we want to do destination retail. Now we've done the retail and we're moving on to what I would call a mixed-use development where you have education, you have AT&T call center, a diverse group of businesses that can all co-exist in one site.

And at the end of the day, I hope we have recreation opportunities up there. I'd love to see us do some ice for the youth hockey, I'd love to see us do a multi-purpose indoor facility so people can do lacrosse, baseball, soccer year-round, and potentially a baseball stadium. Those are all things I'd like to see as we get down the road and we perform better.

-- This is a question we asked Don Rigby for the April Sunday Sit-Down, and we would like for you to address it as well. The Highlands is a public project, and now the Wheeling Nailers are owned by a quasi-public agency in the Regional Economic Development Partnership. What is it about the local area that appears to be keeping private investors from coming in and doing projects that the public sector is now being asked to perform?

Sims: I don't know that I would agree that the private sector is not investing, I think the private sector is heavily invested in The Highlands, for instance. There were private investors who looked at the Nailers and determined that they couldn't make it work, and that's why there isn't a private owner of that. ... We see a lot of private sector people in here trying to invest and be part of what right now looks like a pretty good economy locally. And I think we've tried to create every opportunity to bring people in: when you have infrastructure in place and you have property, there's no reason why you can't attract the private sector. That's something I want to emphasize - we want those private sector dollars. I don't want the county building anything else or doing those sorts of things.

-- Natural gas. The county has leased its mineral rights to Chesapeake Energy for The Highlands, the Ohio County Farm and the airport, with production nearing for the Gantzer well near The Highlands. Once production begins and royalties start coming in, the county could be looking at substantial sums of money each month. What do you think the county should do with that funding?

Sims: Depending on how much money it is, number one I would like to see us do a property tax reduction. That's something that if it was done, I would like to see it done permanently. I wouldn't want to see us do a one or two year reduction and then have everything go back up. If it's something we can do a permanent reduction, that would be the first priority.

The second priority would be to continue to invest in infrastructure. One of my goals over the last 18 years is to make Ohio County the first county in West Virginia that has potable water to every resident. We're pretty close to that, I think there's about 600 homes that are still on wells. I would like to see us take some of the money, complete that project and have everyone on the county water system.

And as I talked about recreational facilities, giving something back to the community, some ice, indoor facility, a baseball stadium, something for the betterment of the community, for quality of life. That attracts people. When they come into this area and they say 'hey, you're a city with a minor league hockey team,' if we get a minor league baseball team ... We're a county of 45,000-50,000 people, there'd be very few counties our size that would have the opportunities and those sorts of amenities for the people who live here.

-- What are your thoughts on natural gas development in the area overall - what are the opportunities and, frankly, what do you see as the pitfalls?

Sims: The obvious pitfalls are environmental. Is it going to be safe, is it going to create environmental issues - those are the concerns. As a county commissioner, there's not a lot we can do other than to work with the EPA, the DEP, DNR, to make sure the people who are extracting the gas are doing it the right way, they're doing it safely and the people are protected. The thing you hear about particularly is groundwater. I haven't heard any groundwater issues in Ohio County at this point. So those are the obvious pitfalls.

The benefits are that there's a lot of (money) - right now, the real estate and rental market is really hot. I hear from people that have rental units - a guy told me the other day he had a unit available, put an ad in the paper and in one day he had five calls. There's just a lot of activity for that market. The hotels are filling up, the restaurants are benefiting and there's opportunity for jobs within the industry if people can get themselves trained for that. When Wheeling Island Casino opened, (West Virginia) Northern Community College did the classes to teach dealers. Our education system was able to jump in and train people properly. We need to do the same thing for oil and gas. We've got to step up with classes, train people and get local people into the jobs that are being created.

-- The county has been involved in a few cooperative ventures downtown - the former Robinson property, the former Straub property - that soon will be leading to a new use for those sites. Are there any other thoughts or ideas for joint ventures downtown?

Sims: I talk to Mayor (Andy) McKenzie frequently, and we talk about projects, and I think he's got the city going in the right direction, trying to get rid of some of the older buildings that ... are just to expensive to rehab and make usable again. And to create ground. The thing that made The Highlands successful is that you could point to a piece of ground and say here it is, all you have to do is build. I think they're going in the right direction doing those sorts of things and if there is a project that we can participate in, either financially or otherwise, we want to step up and try and do that. A vibrant downtown is as important as having The Highlands be successful. We want to have a strong downtown where people can work, play ... the same goals we have for The Highlands.

-- Last question: The Tri-State region appears to remain in the same rut - high unemployment, shrinking population - that it has found itself in for about the past 40 years. What's it going to take to really move Ohio County and the city of Wheeling forward?

Sims: We've got to take advantage of the opportunities we have. This area - obviously with the steel industry, when it declined the area declined. We were very tied to that industry as a region. ... Now there's an opportunity with energy production, not only with oil and gas but with coal. The Tunnel Ridge Mine is cranking up. We've got to re-adapt ourselves and take advantage of those opportunities and get rid of the mindset - as someone said, the prevailing mindset in this area used to be 'I hope my neighbor's cow dies.' Get rid of that mindset and let's start rooting for each other instead of rooting against each other. Let's work together and take advantage of the opportunity we've been handed. I've talked to people over the past six months - small business owners, those in the service industries, carpenters, accountants - and they all say the same thing: things are picking up. Business is getting better. An everybody I talk to in small business is seeing business pick up and things are starting to happen. We all need to push in the same direction and take advantage of the opportunity. This oil and gas rush - I hope it continues, it's been a godsend, we need to try to ride it and take advantage of it.

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