Lancaster will not join the Northern Neck Regional Industrial Facility Authority.
Jerry Davis, Executive Director of the Northern Neck Planning District Commission pitched the idea to Lancaster’s Board of Supervisors at their November meeting.
He explained that the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) conducted a state-wide survey where engineers evaluated potential industrial business sites and ranked them according to their readiness for development. VEDP concluded there was a scarcity of attractive industrial sites across the state. Regional industrial facility authorities (RIFAs) are supposed to help address that problem by allowing localities to join forces in developing, owning and operating facilities through combined action.
To form a RIFA, at least two localities are required. Northumberland, Richmond County and Westmoreland had already signed the agreement and bylaws. King George was expected to officially join this month after a public hearing.
At the November meeting, Supervisor Jack Larson immediately expressed opposition.
He told Davis about a meeting in January where two gentlemen outlined their experience. Their county was convinced to invest in creating a “site ready” project, which involved using public funds to cover zoning and build structures. But once that was done, the men said businesses didn’t move to the area and there was an outcry about spending public money on sites that weren’t being used.
“I’m under the impression it was not well received,” said Larson. “So, this is something I cannot get behind.”
Davis told Larson those individuals were referring to Westmoreland’s investment in the industrial park in Montross and the 50,000 square foot shell building that VEDP recommended the county build.
“There is some degree of risk a locality faces when making that sort of investment,” Davis explained, adding that although it took a while, all of the sites and the shell building were eventually sold.
Davis also noted that the RIFA is designed to help address those types of situations because localities can work together on a project to share the risk.
But Supervisor Robert Westbrook didn’t find comfort in that idea. To the contrary, he said the way the agreement was written gave him “heartburn.”
“Lancaster could be saddled with dues and operational fees that will not benefit our taxpayers at all. And, although it is very easy to join this authority, it could be very expensive to leave,” he said. Furthermore, Westbrook noted that from his understanding, two-thirds of the authority could vote and obligate Lancaster to accept a portion of significant debt whether it benefits the county or not.
Supervisor William Lee said he attended the same meeting as Larson and got the same impression. He said the Business Advisory Committee—which Lancaster appointed to explore business and economic opportunities—should weigh in on the matter before the county makes a decision.
Although Larson and Westbrook voted against the holding of a public hearing on joining the RIFA, the motion carried 3-to-2, and it was scheduled for this month.
A decision is made
At the December board meeting, no members of the public spoke on the matter except Kilmarnock Town Manager Susan Cockrell, who was delivering a message on behalf of the Business Advisory Committee.
“This RIFA that the other counties adopted has wonderful potential and has worked in other areas of the state,” she said. But because of the configuration of the Northern Neck and where the major arterial roadways are, the committee believes that any development is really only going to benefit those that are in the immediate vicinity. And the concern is Lancaster County may not come up on the strong end of that discussion. “So, the direct recommendation is that this is not something to pursue at this time,” she said.
Larson reminded his fellow supervisors of his clear opposition in November, and added that there are already chambers of commerce, the Planning District Commission, the Business Relations Advisory Committee, the Economic Development Authority and River Realm.
“At what point do we start stumbling over each other would be the question I ask… I think we can do a lot more working with the existing authorities and the existing entities that are trying to promote business in the county. And as a result, I don’t think it’s to our advantage [to join the RIFA]” he said.
Westbrook reiterated the presumed drawbacks he outlined in November, but also cited additional concerns, explaining that there’s a history of regional efforts that are touted as being promising. He pointed to the Planning District Commission’s Stronger Economies Together initiative, which “decided the entire Northern Neck was covered for broadband” in 2016. Then, after that came the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy.
“So [this RIFA] is a reiteration of the same idea—let’s all get together and figure out how we can improve ourselves by working together. But then, they all go away. They all just disappear,” said Westbrook.
Furthermore, “what industries would we attract here?” he asked his fellow board members. “The only two industries I can think of are broadband and solar. So, I’m suspicious of cross-county solar facilities that this group decides is a good idea would usurp whatever we think is a good idea.”
But as in the previous month, Westbrook didn’t shut down the possibility of joining the RIFA altogether. He’s against being an early signatory.
“I hold out the caveat that we wait and see how well they do, and we can join at any time in the future,” he said.
The board voted unanimously in opposition of joining.