Just about a year ago Proctor & Gamble, an international juggernaut in the manufacturing industry, announced it would construct its 26th U.S.-based factory in the Mountain State’s Eastern Panhandle and would employ as many as 700 once the two-phase project is completed by late 2018.
For John Reisenweber, it was bad news but still good news.
Reisenweber has served as the executive director for the Jefferson County Development Authority for the past four-plus years, so when the decision makers for the detergent and soup maker selected the Tabler Station area in Berkeley County, he was confident growth still would be realized throughout the three-county panhandle.
And that is exactly what has taken place although most of the headlines are future updates concerning the massive, $500 million factory soon to be constructed along Interstate 81. Proctor & Gamble, which paid $30 million of for the property, plans to employ as many as 300 workers by the end of next year once 4.5 million cubic yards of earth is manipulated to make way for the first phase of the development.
“Right now the site where the facility will be constructed is a big pile of dirt, but now that they have taken down the trees along the highway, you can see just how large it is going to be when it’s finished,” Reisenweber said. “It’s a massive site. It’s 458 acres right along Interstate 81, and right now they are doing all of the earthwork, and my understanding is that it should be completed sometime in 2018.
“It’s basically a three-year build, and they are now setting up a training facility for the employees that they will hire,” he continued. “And once it’s operational, a lot of your typical Proctor & Gamble products will be manufactured there like soaps and detergents.”
Initially, the company will produce Bounce fabric enhancers, but then once the second phase is finished Pantene, Head & Shoulders, Aussie, Herbal Essence, and Vidal Sassoon shampoos and conditioners will be added as will Olay and Old Spice. Proctor & Gamble has received more than 1,000 applications from potential employees from 19 states and four countries.
There existed a slight chance the international company would choose a location in Jefferson County, but even Reisenweber admits Tabler Station is a far better location for such a manufacturing operation.
“While we always try to partner with each other, obviously all three counties in this region of the state do compete against each other from time to time. and the Proctor & Gamble development is an example of that competition,” he explained. “Proctor & Gamble looked at Jefferson County, so we were involved with the initial effort, but it wasn’t long until they realized how ideal the site where they will build is. That’s truly one of the best industrial sites probably in the Mid-Atlantic Region.
“It’s got everything. It has rail, it’s relatively flat ground, and it’s got the roads and the baseline items a company needs to develop and operate the kind of facility they will build there,” Reisenweber continued. “But we all do cooperate on things because I would much rather something go to Berkeley County so we can see this entire area grow and prosper.”
Commercial, retail, industrial, and residential development stopped in its tracks when the country’s housing industry collapsed and banks ceased lending in late 2008, but Reisenweber is encouraged now that growth has begun again in this area of West Virginia.
“Right now we have some good things going because the economy seems to be picking up in this area,” he explained. “There’s been a lot of investment into this community, which for a while, was pretty stagnant for several years. The housing market is starting to come back, and we’re starting to see some new housing developments take place.
“And right now we have five different construction projects in our business park that are in various stages, and I am pretty excited about that because it’s a sign of economic growth,” said Reisenweber, who worked with the Berkely County’s development authority for 11 years before joining the Jefferson County team. “When you see commercial, industrial, and residential pick up, it’s always a good sign for your area, and we’re pleased that it’s happening, trust me.”
Now, Jefferson County’s growth does not include a new factory that will boast a one-million-square-foot facility, but growth in commerce leads to a growth in population, tax collection, and infrastructure improvements.
“These are small projects compared to some of the others taking place in this region, so they are not comparable to the Proctor & Gamble project that everyone has been reading about, but all-in-all very positive signs for the future,” Reisenweber explained. “It’s trending in the right direction; that’s for sure, and that’s why we have been working very hard to make sure the infrastructure is in place that allows for that economic development to take place.
“We worked very hard with Mountaineer Gas to make sure that expansion would take place, and that will be a very positive thing for Jefferson County because we were losing interested companies that wanted to develop here,” he said. “When you are talking with manufacturing companies, they are looking for some specific things. Of course, you have to have the roads, the water, and the sewers, but now you have to have broadband, and you have to have good access to natural gas. It’s a check box, and if you don’t have something these companies are looking for, then they go look somewhere else.”
There were tweaks needed to state code in order for Berkeley County to close the deal for the new factory, and the local lawmakers were able to appropriately communicate those requirements well enough that a majority reacted in positive fashion. Now the rest of this three-county area will benefit.
“Proctor & Gamble help guide the ship when it came to the gas service expansion in this area, and that’s because they have large gas needs, and everyone involved quickly recognized that something would have to be done,” Reisenweber said. “The Legislature passed some legislation in 2015 that was critical to getting it done and making these kinds of projects more feasible.
“Growth puts a strain on everything. Now, when I talk with people from around the state, they always tell me that they would love to have the problems that we have associated with growth, and I understand that, but at the same time, now that the gas service expansion is taking place, there are many more very expensive projects we need to take care of, and these types of projects take a long time to complete,” he explained. “But it is something you have to do because you can’t sell your product if you don’t have those baseline pieces of infrastructure. That’s why we work on that every day.”
Reisenweber said Morgan, Berkeley, and Jefferson counties each have added residents as well as property owners in the past four years because of the Proctor & Gamble project but also because of the region’s proximity to the borders of Maryland and Virginia. According to U.S. Census data from 2015, Morgan County is now home to 17,500 citizens; Jefferson County has bulged to 56,400, and Berkeley County is home to 112,000 folks.
“We have seen population increases the past few years, and we are getting very close to having 200,000 residents in this three-county area,” Reisenweber reported. “All three counties are growing in population, and I expect that to continue for several years to come, and that’s because the Washington, D.C., will continue to foster that growth.
“And I believe the Eastern Panhandle has an advantage because of the difference in the cost of living here as opposed to the other states that surround the D.C. area. The difference in the cost of housing, for example, is off the charts, and that’s why thousands of people have come right across the border to live in one of the counties in the Eastern Panhandle,” he continued. “They are able to find a home that is much more affordable because of the cost of property and also because of the tax structure in West Virginia.”
That is why, Reisenweber insisted, cooperation between the counties must continue via development partnerships involving representatives of all three panhandle counties.
“We do work cooperatively, and we do have a very good relationship. We also have the Western Potomac Economic Partnership, and that’s made up of the three counties in the Eastern Panhandle along with Hampshire County,” he said. “We have some marketing dollars that we use jointly to promote the entire region, and I think we’ll see more of regional focus on economic development.
“The whole goal is to make the entire area better than it is today, and that’s the focus of the Region 9 Economic Development Council. It’s a group that’s helps spearhead and prioritize different economic development projects,” Reisenweber continued. “We have a great amount of cooperation that takes place, and you really have to because it’s far better to work cooperatively rather than confrontationally.”
(Photos of Jefferson County development provided by the county’s Development Authority)