NEW CUMBERLAND - Officials here hope that Monday's bus tour is the start of something big for this small county seat.
The tour had Mayor Linda McNeil, City Council members and officials with the Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle covering everything between the northern and southern city limits in a bid to identify future economic development opportunities.
But the tour also gave officials the chance to make a realistic assessment of the challenges facing the city - challenges including increasing truck traffic, dilapidated buildings, an aging population and a declining industrial tax base.
BUS TOUR REPORT — Patrick Ford, executive director of the Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle, spoke to New Cumberland Council members following Monday’s bus tour of the city. The tour was held to identify economic development opportunities in the city, which recently became a member of the BDC. - Stephen Huba
"The thing I'm most pleased about is it seems that we've been given a focus, a starting point to make improvements in our operations," McNeil said.
On the same day as the bus tour, McNeil met with officials with the West Virginia Department of Transportation and the Brooke Hancock Jefferson Metropolitan Planning Commission to address ongoing concerns about heavy oil-and-gas-industry truck traffic on state Route 2, especially Station Hill and Ridge Avenue.
McNeil said she fears further degradation of the road and hopes the state can help the city develop a plan to reroute truck traffic through town.
"They share our concerns," McNeil said, noting that three or four proposals are being looked at.
One possible solution discussed during the bus tour would involve routing northbound truck traffic on Ridge Avenue and southbound traffic on Chester Street.
"As a temporary measure, I'd be supportive of that," McNeil said.
Accompanying McNeil on the tour were City Council members Brian Webster, Miriam Hess, Judith Bartley and Shawn Marks; BDC Executive Director Patrick Ford; BDC Assistant Director Marvin Six; and Hancock County Commissioner Jeff Davis.
New Cumberland recently joined the BDC, and city officials hope that membership will result in technical and financial assistance for city projects.
As the tour passed the New Cumberland branch of 1st National Community Bank, McNeil said, "Wouldn't that make a great city building?"
The bank branch is scheduled to close on Dec. 13, and bank officials expect to put the property up for sale. City offices currently are in the New Cumberland Municipal Building.
Also on the north side of town, council members learned that the Resco Products Inc. New Cumberland Operation is in the process of moving to East Canton, Ohio.
Resco recently contacted the BDC about the possibility of selling the 32-acre property, Ford said.
Council members queried Davis about the county's plans for the old Dollar General building on North Chester Street. County commissioners bought the building for $232,000 in February and want to adapt the retail space for reuse as a judicial complex for the Hancock County Magistrate Court.
County-owned land next door will be developed into a parking lot and the future home of the Hancock County Health Department, Davis said.
"I'd be really happy if we were moving dirt by June or July of 2014. It'd be nice to have (the health department) in there by next winter," Davis said.
City officials spent most of the bus tour identifying and discussing dilapidated buildings. The blighted buildings, including a row of commercial properties near the intersection of Chester and Madison streets, are an impediment to economic development, officials agreed.
"This drives me crazy," Bartley said, looking at a row of vacant downtown buildings.
Although New Cumberland has no zoning code, the city is reactivating its Building Enforcement Agency in an effort to either rehabilitate or demolish dilapidated buildings. Councilman Marks, who also is city building inspector, said he has a list of 10 properties that were condemned by the courts years ago but are still standing.
"We have the authority to tear them down, but it's finding the money to tear them down (that's the problem)," Marks said. "I'm at a loss for what to do."
The city may qualify for funds through the WV Brownfields Assistance Center in Morgantown for the abatement of vacant buildings.
Six and Ford suggested the city make strict building enforcement a priority, and, in the meantime, forward the BDC parcel maps and other information about the previously condemned buildings.
Ford said he was encouraged by the tour. "It was very refreshing to have City Council and the mayor engaged in wanting to work hard to begin developing a strategy to revitalize the business climate in New Cumberland," he said.
Ford said the next step is to form committees that will work on a plan to improve the community in four areas: Design/appearance, organization/leadership, promotion and economic restructuring/housing.