Officials: Highlands focus for 2014

WHEELING – All Ohio County commissioners wanted for Christmas this year was a second interchange at the Highlands – and maybe some economic growth resulting from the construction of an ethane cracker plant in northern West Virginia.

Commissioners plan to first ask the West Virginia Legislature when it convenes next month to expand the Tax Increment Financing District at the Highlands from its present 300 acres to 500 acres, with the resulting revenue to be used to fund construction of the second interchange.

If this effort is unsuccessful, commissioners say county dollars could be used to fund a westbound only exit ramp to alleviate traffic congestion at the development.

“If it doesn’t go through, it will be a major disappointment,” said Commissioner Tim McCormick. “Hopefully we could find another funding source, because the second interchange is needed.”

Commissioner Randy Wharton said Ohio County should be able to work out and arrangement with the state of West Virginia to build the second interchange at the Highlands, or at least a ramp to exit the development onto Interstate 70 westbound.

Wharton also thinks a major financial positive for Ohio County is that officials can continue to operate the county without increasing any taxes, and he credited the contributions of the Ohio County Development Authority with providing the county with needed capital. The authority in 2013 was able to repay $700,000 it owed to the commission by refinancing loans at lower rates it used to develop properties at the Highlands.

This move also provided the dollars needed to create spaces for future tenants at the Highlands, according to Wharton.

“The Development Authority paid back the money to the commission, and it was able to separate itself administratively and financially from the county,” he said. “I would like to see us fill all the vacant space we have at the Highlands in 2014.”

Commissioner Orphy Klempa sees Ohio County heading for economic prosperity in 2014.

“The whole county has just had a great year,” he said. “I think a lot of great things will start happening here because of the cracker plant.”

A Brazilian company, Odebrecht, announced last month its intention to build an ethane cracker plant in Wood County, W.Va., to capitalize on the by-products of Northern West Virginia’s natural gas industry. Many of the gas wells can be found in local counties.

“I would like to see a cracker plant where the gas is extracted – not in Wood County,” McCormick said. “And I would have liked to see us get some direct employment from the plant. It is silly to transfer the gas 100 miles from its source when the plant could have been built here.”