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Development Authority navigates unusual year

PARKERSBURG — The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact local businesses to varying degrees and has impacted the business community throughout the Mid-Ohio Valley.

The annual membership meeting of the Wood County Development Authority and The Parkersburg-Wood County Area Development Corporation was held via conference call Wednesday.

Chairman Ed McDonough said it was probably the largest virtual meeting he has attended.

”These are certainly strange times, but we are getting along,” he said.

Executive Director Lindsey Piersol said they have always been big on applying for industrial access road grants.

The Wood County Development Authority received a grant of $166,000 on behalf of Sterling Packaging to extend Conley Drive to Sterling, replacing a gravel access road.

”It will cost no money to the development authority,” Piersol said.

The authority voted to accept the agreement between the development authority and the West Virginia Department of Highways for that grant.

Piersol talked about local statistics for Fiscal Year 2020.

They had 73 properties marked inactive in their property database after being sold or leased.

”That is 26 more than we had marked inactive last year,” Piersol said.

Site visits were down somewhat as the pandemic took hold and officials have not been able to conduct business visits for the past few months.

”We have picked up on some of those through conference calls and Zoom meetings,” Piersol said.

They have had 20 new businesses during the 2020 fiscal year, the same as 2019, as well as 18 expansions, up eight from last year. They were able to do 12 ribbon cuttings and/or groundbreakings.

”(With COVID) it has been an off-year to be able to celebrate some of those things,” Piersol said.

Even with the pandemic, many people were utilizing technology to find out about the area. They had 2,308 website sessions from January to June, averaging just over 2 minutes.

They had 490 new Facebook followers this year, bringing the total to 1,412.

A Wood County Economic Development Linkedin page was created before the pandemic hit and it has 222 followers as of June 30.

”Given the pandemic, we have encouraged people to follow the Facebook page,” Piersol said of keeping people informed about grant opportunities, COVID news relating to businesses, the state’s West Virginia Comeback Plan and other developments.

Over the past fiscal year, the area saw things like Contour Air starting flights to Charlotte, N.C. and the construction of new stores on the former Sears store footprint at the Grand Central Mall, including Ross Dress For Less, HomeGoods, PetSmart and TJ Maxx.

”We are excited to have those stores opening in 2021,” Piersol said.

An announced $40 million expansion at Hino and other businesses had to be put on hold as they were impacted by the pandemic. Hino has halted normal production and is looking to start back up in September.

Over the last year, they distributed over 1,500 Wood County Welcome Packets to new residents. Officials felt it was a successful project and they are planning to update it and do more for the coming year.

The new Aldi opened over the past year in south Parkersburg.

”That was one of our highest ranked Facebook posts we have ever had,” Piersol said.

Piersol talked about the Ross Foundation buying the former Masonic Temple on Market Street to build a Children’s Museum focusing on themes of science, technology, art, and mathematics activities.

The investment in the building is expected to be $3.5 million to $3.9 million.

”We are really excited and we know it will be a big game changer for downtown,” Piersol said.

Over the past few months, they have been working on understanding (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) C.A.R.E.S. Act information and distributing it to many local businesses as well as information to help businesses dealing with the impact of the pandemic.

”We have been working with the business community in applying for funds at this time,” Piersol said.

As of June 30, West Virginia had 17,322 accepted applications for the Paycheck Protection Plan in the amount of over $1.8 billion.

”There were 81 businesses in Wood County who were able to get some of those funds,” Piersol said.

In March 2020, the unemployment rate in Wood County was 6.4 percent, Piersol said. In May 2020, it was 13.2 percent. Now it is around 10 percent, she said.

”That is how drastically things changed,” Piersol said. ”If it wasn’t for the PPP funds and our banker friends, I think we would have been in pretty bad shape.”

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