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Parkersburg area officials plan shale study trip

PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — A dozen local officials are heading north this winter to learn how a North Dakota city at ground zero of the shale boom dealt with a rapidly growing population.

The mayors of Parkersburg, Vienna, Belpre and Marietta hope to apply lessons from Minot, N.D., to what the Mid-Ohio Valley’s experience will be if and when an anticipated ethane cracker plant is built in Wood County.

“We’re trying to focus right now on getting ready for a bunch of people to come into the area,” Parkersburg Mayor Bob Newell said.

The four-day trip is scheduled for Jan. 25-28. Also scheduled to attend are Parkersburg and Vienna development officials and police chiefs, representatives from the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Council, which supports economic development activities in eight counties, and Wood County Commissioner-elect Bob Tebay. Williamstown Mayor Jean Ford was invited but was unable to attend.

Newell said a representative of Odebrecht, the company whose subsidiary is planning the cracker facility, advised local officials a few months back to start preparing before the project is confirmed, because things will move quickly after that.

“If we wait ’til they announce, it may be too late,” he said.

Project A.S.C.E.N.T. (Appalachian Shale Cracker Enterprise), a multibillion-dollar petrochemical complex centered around the cracker, was unveiled last year by West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and officials from Brazil-based Odebrecht.

The company has not definitively confirmed the project will happen, but it has spent millions of dollars preparing, including purchasing the SABIC facility in Washington, W.Va.

The project is expected to create thousands of jobs during construction and hundreds going forward, not to mention the people that would be employed in related and supporting businesses.

That has local officials anticipating a population boom like the Minot area has seen since advances in drilling technology allowed access to the deep-underground Bakken shale formation. The Mid-Ohio Valley is also seeing increased activity thanks to the Utica and Marcellus shale formations here.

Rickie Yeager, Parkersburg’s development director, said Minot’s population rose by 11.8 percent- from 36,567 to 40,888- between 2000 and 2010. U.S. Census Bureau estimates placed the total for 2013 at 46,321.

“It’s pretty remarkable what’s going on up there,” Yeager said.

Stephanie Hoffert, president of the Minot Area Development Corporation, said the local airport’s enplanements have tripled and a six-terminal facility is under construction. Approximately 60 oil-servicing companies have a presence in the community.

And while those developments would be welcome news to an area that has lost population over the last few decades and could use an economic shot in the arm, there are also concerns that come with the change.

“When you add the influx of people that they say we’re going to get, you have to be ready for everything,” Vienna Mayor Randy Rapp said.

A lack of affordable housing is one, as workers come into the area and are able to pay higher rents or companies purchase property outright. Making sure the infrastructure like roads and water and sewer lines are ready to support the development is another.

And with additional people come concerns about increases in crime, which is one reason Parkersburg Police Chief Joe Martin and Vienna Police Chief George Young will be going on the four-day trip.

“These folks have already been through it; they know what it takes,” Rapp said. “They know the things that didn’t work well and the things that did work well.”

Lorentz said Belpre has already received inquiries from hotel companies looking at the city, and one of the things they’re seeking is traffic count numbers. He said he’s hoping to get an idea of that on the trip, but he’s open to whatever he can learn.

“I just want to get a firsthand view and bring it back to our council,” Lorentz said. “I think talking to these people face-to-face will drive the conversation.”

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