The Highlands to get legislative boost

WHEELING – The West Virginia Senate on Tuesday passed a bill providing Ohio County the financial means to build a second interchange at The Highlands.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Robert “Rocky” Fitzsimmons, D-Ohio, next moves on to the House for consideration. The measure seeks to increase the land encompassed by the Fort Henry economic opportunity development project district from 300 to 500 acres. A portion of the sales tax dollars generated in the TIF district would stay with the Ohio County Development Authority, which would use the funds to pay for construction of a second interchange there.

An application submitted by the Ohio County commissioners detailing their plans already has been approved by the state Economic Development Office, according to Fitzsimmons.

“I was very happy to see the bill passed the Senate unanimously, 33 to 0,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to create jobs and promote safety – not only for Ohio County, but for the entire region,” he said. “I am confident it will pass the House, and I will continue to work in that chamber to advance this legislation and do my best to see that it passes.”

Fitzsimmons said he already has approached House members to let them know the measure “is a jobs bill.”

“I have to help educate people,” he said. “There are some areas of the state where their delegate is familiar with what a TIF district is, and other areas where they are not so familiar.”

Legislation to expand the TIF District at The Highlands also was introduced in 2013, but there was not enough time for it to proceed through the process during the regular legislative session.

State lawmakers, though, did pass similar legislation last year to expand the TIF District at the University Town Center in Monongalia County.

Ohio County Commissioner Randy Wharton is optimistic the bill will be passed in the House and sent on to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin for signature.

“In the House, it will probably be sent to the Finance Committee,” he said. “It can probably pass out of there. I think it will. We don’t have any reason to believe there’s any opposition.”

County leaders traveled to Charleston earlier this month to meet with Tomblin and House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison., to discuss the need for the second interchange at The Highlands.

“Speaker Miley told us he did support all of our efforts at The Highlands, including this method to fund the interchange,” Wharton said. “If House leadership supports it, it gives us a good chance. It will be interesting to watch this legislation as it goes through the House to see if any changes are made.”

If the measure is signed into law, commissioners then would sell bonds to fund the project, according to Wharton.

“We would go to the bond market, and have to be able to show we can produce the tenants,” he said. “We have our work cut out to finish some deals and create a market for the bonds.”

The proposal is Senate Bill 439.