Heartland Business Park fails to attract big business to Charlotte County

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CHARLOTTE COUNTY, Va. (WDBJ7) - The Heartland Industrial Park in Charlotte County, designed to bring jobs to the region, has been empty for more than a decade.

The 773-acre regional industrial park in Keysville was created after six counties launched a partnership called Virginia’s Heartland Regional Industrial Authority 17 years ago.

"We weren't experts in economic development so we went to the people in Richmond that are experts," Heartland Regional Industrial Authority Chair Gary Walker said.

According to Walker, the advice from state officials in Richmond was to operate on a regional basis to achieve success.

“The only grants they were going to give out were on a regional basis, each county got an allotment they got from the tobacco commission,” he said.

"But in order to tap into that allotment, you had to come up with a regional project."

In late 2000, the following counties passed an ordinance agreeing to participate in the regional effort: Amelia County, Buckingham County, Charlotte County, Cumberland County, Lunenburg, and Prince Edward County.

According to the ordinance, “the purpose of the large regional facility is to complement the existing smaller facilities available in the county and to attract the business prospects that desire a large facility not otherwise available in the “Heartland Region”.

The purpose of the authority according to the ordinance is to develop the park as a “regional industrial park and for the additional purpose of future development of other industrial properties.”

But 17 years after the creation of the authority and more than a decade after the industrial park was built, the park is empty with the exception of an office that houses one employee with economic development group Go Virginia.

"More than anything, Charlotte County needs jobs,” said Charlotte County native Kay Pierantoni, who was elected to the board of supervisors in November.

Tori Thompson is a high school senior in Charlotte County who has started thinking about where she wants to go post-graduation.

"It's so small here, there's nothing here,” she said of the county.

According to Thompson, there is a common theme among her peers when planning for the future.

“They all try to go away to bigger and better things, to places where people can actually find decent jobs."

Pierantoni doesn't want the lack of opportunity to push young people out of the county.

"The people in Charlotte County are very good people and they are strong people. They are smart."

As far as the Heartland Industrial Park goes, Charlotte County is in charge of the finances.

Heartland Regional Authority Chair and also Board of Supervisors member Gary Walker says they've been successful in funding the park through grants.

According to the board's most recent audit, the following organizations have awarded the project with grants: Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, Virginia Department of Transportation, and the Virginia Tobacco Commission.

Through public records requests, we found the Virginia Tobacco Commission has financed a bulk of it, putting up more than $6 million dollars for the project.

The commission has awarded the following grant requests: Purchase land for $1,375,000, developed land purchased for $960,181, installed fiber optic and developed marketing materials for $844,797.

The commission also awarded a $300,000 grant for an engineering study for a transmission line extension and substation and awarded the project with $730,000 to upgrade and expand wastewater facility in the town of Keysville to benefit the park, and $407, 684 for construction site grading, and $1.1 million to build a building at the park.

“No local tax dollars have been spent on this park, zero. So it has been 100-percent grant money," Walker said.

However, some grant applications listed a local match to the grant money.
According to the grant application requesting $406,684 for construction grading, the application states Charlotte County would match the funds with a $28,700 Charlotte County cash match and $2,500 Charlotte County in-kind.

According to Charlotte County Finance Director Norma Tuck, the grant was for the Charlotte County Industrial Park and the Heartland Business Park.

“There were two sites, the 19-acre tract in the Charlotte County Business Park is where the other fund source of $28,700 was applied.”

The cash match is listed on the application as coming from Charlotte County Industrial Development authority for engineering costs for grading plan for 19-acre tract.

As for the in-kind match from Charlotte County, Tuck said it was for staff time coordinating between engineers and Care Rehab and Orthopedic Products who donated $250,000 of fill dirt required to bring grade to road level.

Charlotte County also put up $5,000 for the project for project administration and permit fees to build the building on the property. According to Tuck, no cash was involved for the in-kind match for that project.

The Industrial Site Development Fund granted the project a planning grant of $40,000 and also a construction grant for $1,375,000. For the planning grant, the ISDF application lists $10,000 as local cash.

Tuck explained the ISDF planning funds were awarded before the official establishment of the authority in 2001.

"Money has gone into this park to supposedly bring jobs to the county. But it has not, and in my opinion, I think it has been used unwisely," said Pierantoni.

In many of the tobacco commission grant applications, the Heartland Regional Authority said they needed the money for projects that didn't end up panning out.

The authority received $1,160,000 in 2005 to build a building at the park that according to the grant application would “serve the 450 newly displaced West Point Stevens plant workers”.

The grant application also stated the facility would operate in conjunction with Southside Virginia Community College and would operate a truck driver accreditation program and heavy equipment operator certification program. The grant application also said the facility would serve as the marketing office for the business park.

Currently, the building only serves as an office for one employee of economic development agency Go Virginia.

According to the grant application for $300,000 for an electrical engineering study, the regional authority said they wanted the money to study a transmission line extension and substation construction on a site at the park.

“An active prospect is working with the county to acquire 144 acres in Heartland Park to develop a data storage facility that would serve federal clients and require 25MW of electric supply.” The application stated the data facility was stated to be a $47.5 million capital investment with 100 jobs. However, the prospect never panned out.

VDOT approved a $789,000 grant to build an entrance across the street from the park, west of Highway 360, for Forest Pro, Inc., a business that sells logging equipment, Forest Pro.

However, Forest Pro later decided to buy land on the side of the park with already established roads and an entrance.

According to Walker, Forest Pro decided not to buy land on the west side of Highway 360 because they found out how long the project to build an entrance may take.

Forest Pro will employ 8 people.

According to Lynchburg VDOT District Communications Manager Paula Jones, VDOT is aware Forest Pro changed their mind about their location. She says currently the money is still appropriated for the project and the information on the application as correct at the time of submission and scoring.

The project is scheduled for construction in 2020.

“We have made the Lynchburg District CTB member, Shannon Valentine aware of the Forest Pro decision and she is looking forward to further dialogue with Charlotte County and VDOT staff in order to chart a course together on the future of the project,” said Jones.

Pierantoni describes the VDOT project as “an entrance to a cow pasture”.

"I think it is just another failed attempt, I think it's another way for Charlotte County people to feel defeated."

Walker admits the regional authority has felt some heat about the business park.

“Because people wonder why you aren't successful, well until you hit a home run, you haven't hit a home run," said Walker.

Walker does not consider the park a failed project.
“Absolutely not, I would say it's a project that is still maturing at some point there is going to be a business that comes along that says this is exactly where I want to be."

He doesn't think the money given to them through grants has been wasted.

"I think it is an investment," Walker said.

"Sometimes it takes investments longer time to mature, that's what we hope we don't have any guarantees."

According to the 2016 audit, the operating expenses to maintain the park add up to $25,336 a year.

According to Tuck, the operating expenses are covered with revenue from rent, interest, and sale of property at Heartland Park.

The board expects to discuss taking action to spur economic development at the park at their next meeting in January.