NEW CUMBERLAND - For months considered the potential home of youth football games and fire department fundraisers, Newell Memorial Field is now being talked about as a catalyst for economic development.
Hancock County commissioners put their money where their mouth is on Monday by offering the Hancock County school board $400,000 for the Newell facility and the old Jimmy Carey Stadium in Weirton. Commissioners want to develop both properties as places that businesses can call home.
The money would come from either the county's special projects fund or long-term capital improvement fund, commissioners said.
"I believe the commission is moving in the right direction," Commissioner Jeff Davis said after a special meeting on Monday. "We've got to look for economic development opportunities ... and help the private sector to create jobs."
If the school board accepts the offer, the county would take ownership of both properties and begin marketing them to prospective businesses for development purposes.
The school board met Monday night but took no action on the commissioners' proposal. "It's going to take some time to digest that ... from a legal standpoint," board President Jerry Durante said.
A special meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Friday for the board to consider options regarding the stadiums, which are no longer needed now that both high schools have new multi-sports complexes.
Commissioners said the stadium properties are too valuable to pass up because land for economic development is scarce in Hancock County.
"The steel mills are gone. Gaming is under attack. We need to go in a different direction," Commissioner Mike Swartzmiller said. "We want the properties to be developed. We don't want them to sit idle, like Weirton Steel."
Commissioners would enlist the help of the Business Development Corporation (BDC) of the Northern Panhandle, the chief economic development authority for Hancock and Brooke counties. On Monday, after voting 3-0 to submit the offer to the school board, commissioners met with BDC Executive Director Patrick Ford to discuss strategies.
Ford said both stadium properties are ideal for economic development and fit the profile of sites described in an economic development plan completed a year and a half ago - back when the BDC had no properties to show business prospects.
"Your acquisition of these two sites is going to be critical to get us back into the game," Ford told commissioners on Monday. "It gets us back into the game to reintroduce a lot of prospects that we've had to waive on to other states, to come back and take a second look at Hancock County, to either open up or expand in our market."
Ford said those prospects include companies that provide support and services for the burgeoning oil and gas industry. Hancock County is centrally located to much of the drilling activity involving the Marcellus and Utica shales.
Along with the old Taylor, Smith & Taylor pottery site in Chester, whose reclamation is set to be done Dec. 5, county officials would then have three sizable properties available for development, Ford said. Previously, Ford has had to turn away five prospects representing 420 jobs and $20 million in private investment - all because of a lack of developable sites, he said.
"These people came into our area, but we had nothing to show them," Ford said. "We'll be able to market TS&T, and the two stadiums, as very viable and attractive economic development sites."
That could make the difference between businesses moving to Hancock County or looking elsewhere - in Ohio or Pennsylvania, Ford said.
"This commission would like to continue creating economic development opportunities for our county, for our county's citizens and for our county's future," Swartzmiller said.
Swartzmiller said the county has been interested in the stadium properties for awhile but wanted to see what happened with the Chester Volunteer Fire Department's offers before moving forward.
The fire department has been attempting to purchase the Newell stadium property since July, but its offers, including two in tandem with the city of Chester, have been rejected as legally questionable by the school board.
"We sort of backed off a little bit when the private sector got involved," Swartzmiller said. "We believe that less government is better government."
"We did not want to compete with the private sector," Davis said, "but we feel these two parcels are going to become stagnant (if not developed)."
Commissioners decided to "jump back in the mix," Swartzmiller said, after the school board canceled a public auction scheduled for Nov. 30. Commissioners Swartzmiller and Dan Greathouse and Ford met with the board on Nov. 19 to discuss the stadium sale.
"We just heard them out," Durante said. "We didn't commit to anything."
Greathouse said the board asked for a stipulation that no known polluters be allowed to locate on the properties.
Also Monday, to strengthen their offer, commissioners agreed in principle to loan the BDC $750,000 as matching funds for a grant application to the U.S. Economic Development Administration.
The BDC has until Dec. 14 to submit its application for $1.5 million and must include, among other things, a list of three prospective tenants and a specific site that can be developed. The money would be used for site preparation and construction, Ford said.
"When these opportunities surface, we need to be aggressive in going after that money," Ford said. "There is very little money out there in today's world for bricks-and-mortar projects. Most of the money is for either doing planning, assessment or public works projects. It is very rare that money becomes available to do buildings."
Ford said the Newell site would be ideal for a "linear multi-tenant building," ranging in size from 15,000 to 25,000 square feet, for "people who needed offices or to do industrial sales and repair."
Such a building could be divided into offices for use by oil and gas engineers, project managers and inspection crews, or flex space for pipe fitting, pipe repairing, general maintenance and processing, Ford said.
Chester fire Chief John Hissam said he doesn't regret the attempts to buy the Newell stadium but is sorry for the community.
"The great loss is: The property is no longer community property," he said. "All we were trying to do is save it for the community and our own use two weeks a year. Now that's not going to happen. ... The school board, for whatever reason, had their agenda, and the end result is this."
Sue Thompson, treasurer of the Newell Community Improvement Coalition and a critic of the school board's handling of the stadium sale, was more optimistic.
"The commission may be our next best option," she said. "I'm interested in hearing their ideas, but I do feel that this would be one of the better avenues for the school board to take."
Should the school board approve the commissioners' offer, the property would be transferred through a provision in the West Virginia Code that allows for such inter-governmental agreements, county attorney Bill Fahey said.
The school board would deed by general warranty deed both stadiums and the surrounding acreage to the county, which also would have ownership of all surface rights and any oil and gas and mineral rights, according to a draft of the agreement. The Newell property is 4.25 acres, and the Weirton property is about 10 acres.
The board would have 36 months to vacate the maintenance building and bus parking lot at the Weirton location. Part of what the board wants to do with the sale of the Weirton stadium is move its maintenance department to a more central location.
Swartzmiller said commissioners would preserve the veterans memorial at the entrance to the Newell stadium.
Asked whether developing the Newell property will be good for the community, Ford said, "It's something that the community has been telling us - that they need jobs. We need to seize these opportunities when they arise. ... I can see us engaging the community on the stadium sites as we did on the TS&T site."
Ford said just preparing the TS&T site for development has already resulted in economic growth for Chester.
"We've already seen well over half a million dollars in investment on property surrounding that site," he said. "There's an opportunity for multiple gains that otherwise might not have been provided if someone from the private sector got involved. We want to catalyze other development in the community, and, Lord knows, we need additional economic development in Hancock County."