Smolak: Region primed for growth

Published 8:48 am Friday, May 28, 2010

FRANKLIN—Addressing members of the Southampton County Board of Supervisors, the Franklin City Council, and the Board of Directors of Franklin-Southampton Economic Development Inc., FSEDI chairman and CEO John Smolak said both the county and the city have several things working in their favor to foster economic development.

Chief among these, Smolak said, are the recent designation of Franklin and Southampton as an enterprise zone for the next 20 years, the presence of valuable “wood basket” resources, a superior workforce and the ability to retool and retrain that workforce by using facilities such as the Paul D. Camp Community College Regional Workforce Development Center, the venue for Thursday’s meeting.

“These are extremely positive for our communities,” Smolak said. “These allow us to be much more competitive as we deal with new prospect leads.”

But he added that some of those leads may need additional incentives to locate their businesses here.

“In order to remain competitive, our communities need to offer as many buildings and sites as possible,” Smolak said. “A challenge to our own product portfolio is good existing buildings that are currently being offered by many communities in Virginia.”

He then showed slides of such buildings being offered in Chesapeake and Suffolk.

“If we had existing, speculative buildings that we could market, we would probably have a lot more success,” Smolak said. “I know it won’t happen immediately, however in due time we hope to be able to get there.”

Smolak said FSEDI was continuing to speak and work with developers on those types of buildings and finding ways to make the region more competitive.

“(Perhaps) the city and county could begin to evaluate a jointly-developed, shared-cost and shared-revenue speculative building venture,” Smolak said. “It’s just something to think about. But maybe if we can share the burden we could be more competitive.

Franklin Mayor Jim Councill asked Smolak how attractive the region is for future development.

“We’re on the western edge of the Hampton Roads market,” Smolak said. “However, when it comes to the future, we have the land and we have to be diligent that we have the infrastructure. In Hampton Roads right now there is surplus of property because of the economy, however there is not a lot of room to build anything more. I believe our location is prime for the next five to ten years. The growth has to come this way.”

The mayor then asked about how the region would compete against the Shirley T. Holland Intermodal Park, located near Windsor in Isle of Wight County, and CenterPoint, a massive warehousing and distribution complex underway in Suffolk near U.S. Route 58.

“Competition is fierce, there is no question about that,” Smolak said. “I was pleased (CenterPoint) chose to come out on Route 58 because that’s going to attract more things. Route 58 is one of our best-developed corridors.”

Smolak added that reports from consultants and the Port of Virginia suggest that between 25 and 30 percent of container traffic from the port would use U.S. Route 58.

“We have an advantage that we can maybe offer a better rate on land and incentives,” Smolak said. “We now have an enterprise zone that gives us a better edge for the properties that we’re trying to market.”