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Prosperous panhandle

MARTINSBURG — Dusty metal time card slots cover the walls where workers at the World Kitchen plant used to clock in. Spider webs dangle from the time clock where employees used to log their hours at the cookware factory.

A memo dated March 6, 2002, still hangs over the time clock, alerting the Berkeley County employees that their first severance check would be issued the week ending March 17.

It’s been a little more than two years since the 450,000-square-foot factory closed its doors, after opening in 1960. About 275 employees worked at the plant on its last day.

During the plant’s peak in 1987, there were about 700 employees.

Machinery used in the glass-making process, such as furnaces and ventilation pipes, was scattered throughout the factory when contractors Ralph and Don Shockey first looked inside early last year.

“We saw it had a future. So we studied the property and thought we could make it work as an investment,” Ralph Shockey said.

The Shockeys envisioned a business park that could house 10 to 20 tenants in the light-manufacturing, warehousing or distribution businesses.

They bought the facility in January, calling their investment the Berkeley Business Park.

For businesses in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle — Morgan, Jefferson and Berkeley counties — keeping up with the area’s growth means constant reinvention to compete with nearby metro areas for businesses, industries and workers.

From 1980 to 2002, the Eastern Panhandle’s combined population soared by 61 percent, and the number of workers nearly doubled. West Virginia’s population increased by 0.5 percent in those two decades, and its work force decreased by 0.1 percent.

Diversification is key

Nearly 20 years ago, Berkeley County was known for “apples, rocks, frocks and socks,” said Bob Crawford, director of the county’s development authority. General Motors and DuPont were among the county’s largest employers.

“We have greatly diversified since then,” Crawford said.

By 2003, the county added Verizon, Guardian Fiberglass and a Ralph Lauren Children’s Wear distribution facility, among other businesses.

Quad/Graphics, the county’s largest private employer with about 1,000 employees, opened a plant in 1997. In 2000, the company signed a multiyear contract with the National Geographic Society to print nearly 10 million National Geographic magazines a month. Also that year, the plant opened a package sorting operation for its subsidiary, Parcel Direct.

Sino Swearingen Tiger Aircraft — which builds components for intercontinental business jets including the entire fuselage and main wing structure — opened its 97,000-square-foot, 73-employee assembly plant in Martinsburg in 1999.

In the past 10 years in Jefferson County, there’s been a shift away from new manufacturing and distribution businesses moving to the area. Instead, smaller technology-based businesses and federal government contractors that tend to pay more are moving in, said Jane Peters, executive director of the county’s development authority.

In the past year, Peters has talked with five small, high-tech manufacturers, some that do homeland security-related work, three federal contractors that do computer-related work and two nongovernmental high-tech businesses about moving to the county.

Metro areas nearby

The growing population and proximity to the East Coast’s major cities have made Berkeley County and the Eastern Panhandle attractive to companies, Crawford said.

Washington, D.C., is less than 115 miles away from Paw Paw, one of the tri-county region’s westernmost towns. From Harpers Ferry, the region’s easternmost town, Washington is only 67 miles away.

The region has Interstate 81, which cuts through Berkeley County and is nearly in the middle of the panhandle. Interstate 70 runs along part of Morgan and Berkeley counties’ northern borders.

Proximity to the interstates is part of what drew the Shockeys, whose company is based in Winchester, Va., about 25 miles south on Interstate 81, to the old glass-factory building.

“The types of businesses here are growing and want more space,” Ralph Shockey said. “[This is] close to Interstate 81 and a good location.”

Berkeley Business Park’s 70 acres are on U.S. 11, which runs parallel to Interstate 81.

The Shockeys have already felt the demand for their investment. They will finish renovating a 53,300-square-foot space for their first tenant in July — a distribution business from another section of West Virginia that has not yet been publicly announced. The company expects to employ about 100 people.

“It’s good for the community to take a building that has been basically abandoned and turn it into something that turns out to be positive for the area and keeps the building alive and provides a need,” Don Shockey said.

Capitalizing on commuters

Despite the increase in businesses moving to the Eastern Panhandle, the number of people working outside of their home counties has increased from 43 percent in 1990 to 49 percent in 2000, according to U.S. Census data.

Nearly 40 percent of the total workers who live in Berkeley, Morgan or Jefferson counties work outside of West Virginia.

“Many of those would love to find good-paying jobs here instead of in the winter leaving home in the dark and coming home in the dark,” Crawford said. “[Washington] D.C. and northern Virginia jobs pay a great deal more than perhaps here.”

Three years ago, the Jefferson County Development Authority worked with Shepherd College to conduct a survey to find out what kinds of skills were available from the people who lived in the county. Once the county knew what skills its residents had, they could use that data to attract businesses to the area.

“We’re looking at the commuters as an opportunity,” Peters said.

Of the nearly 1,500 people who responded to the survey, half were commuters. The commuters said they would be interested in job opportunities closer to where they lived, if they were available. But they weren’t willing to accept less pay.

The survey found that many of the people who live in Jefferson County but work elsewhere work in health care, aviation, government, construction, manufacturing and distribution facilities. Many of the residents had computer and other information technology skills.

“We’ve been using that as a marketing tool with some of the higher-technology companies we’re trying to attract,” Peters said.

The changing landscape

Jim Daras was one of the people who moved to the area from Washington to get away from the “noise, crime and aggravation.” He’s lived in Berkeley County for 22 years and remembers when the sidewalks rolled up early.

“If the gas station didn’t leave their soda machine on, you couldn’t get a soda after 7:30,” he said.

The area was quieter and less built-up then. He remembers two grocery stores near Charles Town. Now there are at least five. In the early 1980s, the area was mostly farmland and orchards.

“You could travel this road and you wouldn’t see anything,” he said, gazing over a county road just over the Berkeley County line from Jefferson County. Now 225 homes are being built in a subdivision along that road next to the produce stand where he works.

Total cropland in the three counties, which is the amount of land actually being farmed for crops or pasture, decreased by 23 percent between 1982 and 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. West Virginia lost 11 percent of its cropland in that same 20-year span.

In 1982, there were 15,318 acres of orchard land in the tri-county area, compared with 6,652 acres in 2002. By 2002, Morgan County had lost nearly 85 percent of the orchard land it had in 1982. Jefferson County’s orchard land decreased by 76 percent.

One of the reasons orchards aren’t doing so well is because of globalization, said Bill Scott, who has owned Summit Point Automotive Research Center in Jefferson County since 1980. SPARC was the parent company of the 30-acre Summit Point Raceway Orchards, which produced apples from 1985 to 2001.

“It’s so efficient to grow apples worldwide, you’re unable to get the price,” he said. “The technique is so efficient now you either have to have a powerful niche market or a very large operation like the state of Washington.”

People liked the quality, but not the price, said Bill Reichardt, vice president of business development. After 16 years, the orchard would have broken even in 2001 or 2002.

“The orchard was a great experiment. We tried every which way to make it profitable. We had a niche market — apples that tasted good, but didn’t look good,” Scott said.

A ‘hub’ idea

But the orchard was only part of Scott’s 472 acres.

Two racetracks, with a third under construction, and a driver’s training school are the other components of the automotive research center, which employs 28 full-time and 150 part-time workers.

During the week, instructors teach antiterrorism and homeland security driver training on the paved racetracks and off-road courses. On the weekends, amateur race groups and car clubs rent the tracks for sports-car, motorcycle and go-kart races. Scott has owned the facility since 1980. By 1990, he had established the driver training programs.

Now, large indoor coolers that used to chill apples have been replaced with wooden walls constructed to train law enforcement officials on hostage extraction situations.

Scott and Reichardt have plans to increase the economic viability of not only their business, but also the entire Eastern Panhandle. They envision the research center’s success as similar to Silicon Valley in its heyday or West Virginia’s Interstate 79 High Tech Corridor.

They have discussed using part of the orchard to create an advanced police academy with two homeland security agencies. Scott visualizes part of the SPARC facility becoming a place where the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could conduct auto-safety crash tests. Becoming a national center for antiterrorism and homeland security training is also part of the company’s long-term vision.

They call their overall plan the “hub” idea, which could spawn other satellite businesses nearby like research facilities for NHTSA, police equipment suppliers, communications equipment and repair, and firearms repair and sales for the police academy. They’re also building a new maintenance facility to keep up with the increased racetrack and driver-instruction demand.

Although these peripheral jobs are all service-producing, they aren’t the stereotypical low-paying fast-food or retail jobs.

“We’re not talking about Kmart or Wal-Mart,” Reichardt said. “These are high-level jobs.”

In the three-county area, the number of service-producing jobs increased 125 percent between 1980 and 2001, while the number of people working in goods-producing jobs increased by 13 percent, according to the state Bureau of Employment Programs.

In West Virginia, goods-producing jobs have decreased by 39 percent and service-producing jobs have increased by 41 percent between 1980 and 2001.

When compared with the state and the nation, the Eastern Panhandle’s occupational structure is more heavily weighted toward professional and government jobs, such as accountants, doctors and lawyers, says a study done last year by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University’s College of Business and Economics. These are high-paying service occupations that help boost the economic performance of the region.

The study says the occupational outlook through 2010 suggests there will be strong growth of professional and technical jobs in the region.

“The opportunity is going to happen somewhere. It would be great if it happened in West Virginia,” Reichardt said.

To contact staff writer Jennifer Ginsberg, use e-mail or call 348-5195.


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