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Editorial: W.Va. state government shouldn’t backpedal on Rock Creek Development Park

From The Register-Herald of Beckley:

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, who often espouses the need to “think big,” has some wondering whether he is actually thinking smaller in regard to one of his predecessor’s initiatives – the Rock Creek Development Park in the southern part of the state.

Rock Creek was the brainchild of former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who in January 2016 announced his vision that the former Hobet surface mine site in Boone and Lincoln counties be developed into a multi-use industrial, commercial and residential site.

The intent was to attract economic development to the hard-hit southern part of West Virginia that has been devastated by the loss of coal jobs. Tomblin described the project, encompassing about 12,000 acreas, as vital to the Mountain State’s hopes of diversifying its economy. The project made sense in that it would provide for economic development a rare commodity in West Virginia – a large parcel of mostly flat land amid all the state’s mountains and hills.

Toward that end, the state planned a $93 million project to build a four-line highway connecting the Rock Creek development with U.S. 119 and W.Va. 3 and a year ago issued issued $58 million in bonds to help pay for it. Tomblin also announced later that the National Guard will expand training of existing units on property adjacent to the site, expand programs for vehicle and tire maintenance and use the site for a project involving apple trees and greenhouses.

When Justice, elected governor in 2016, and his administration took office in January, support for the project seemed unabated. Justice’s chief of staff at the time, Nick Casey, said that his boss was committed to pursuing development of the site. “The Justice administration’s perspective is: You’ve got to think big. This is big,” Casey said, according to a report by the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Now, however, the Justice administration isn’t thinking quite so big.

Last week, the administration confirmed that it was scaling down the road project to about $30 million for upgrading the existing mine haul road rather than a new highway. That raised concerns for some of the region’s project advocates, who wondered whether an upgraded mine road would be sufficient to accommodate new uses as well as putting the infrastructure in place for potential development. Justice said it would suit the development’s purposes for now and could be evaluated again later as development occurs.

Another apparent shift also was announced last week. Justice said that a plan has been outlined to start immediate economic activity at the former mine site, with the National Guard using a portion of the property for a military training facility for all branches of the service, with the work to start early in 2018. “ … we have a wonderful chance to bring in millions of dollars in investments from military contractors …” Justice said in a news release.

That also had some advocates questioning whether the emphasis on military training and uses could limit available land or opportunities for a broader array of uses as originally outlined by Tomblin. The Justice administration says, however, it will continue to pursue development at Rock Creek as planned since its initial proposal.

Let’s hope that’s the case. Justice often has called for bold moves to improve West Virginia’s economy and has taken some steps himself, such as the road bond proposal that voters approved in October. It would be helpful for the governor and his staff to be more forthcoming about what exactly it has planned for Rock Creek, as well as make it clear that development there will not be limited primarily to one use.

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