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Local business officials mull impact of grant ruling by State S

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

CLARKSBURG -- It took awhile for business interests to interpret a key state Supreme Court of Appeals decision issued Friday afternoon. Once they discovered it nixed more than $32 million in local economic development grants, several responded with a sigh.

That was especially true of Jim Estep, president and chief of the West Virginia High Technology Consortium in Fairmont. That entity was approved last fall for as much as $13.8 million of the gambling-backed funds.

The money was to be used for a new office complex at the I-79 Technology Park.

Other regional projects expecting funds ranged from the Charles Pointe planned community in Bridgeport to a theater/marina complex and a research park in Morgantown.

"If we have to start over -- wow," Estep said.

It was unclear Friday if that would be necessary. The court ruled the basic concept of the grants was OK but said the appointment of the grant-awarding committee and, therefore, its past activities, were not.

"There's an opportunity now for the state legislators to step up and, hopefully, take a very quick and responsive action to salvage ... the high-potential projects," Estep said of what could now happen.

In the North Central region, early legislative reaction to such a possibility was mixed.

Dels. Barbara Warner and Sam Cann, both D-Harrison, anticipated the issue will be taken up. That could possibly happen in a summer special session whose main purpose would be to tackle the looming bankruptcy of the state's workers' compensation system.

"Those are thousands of jobs (at stake)," Warner said. "I think there's the will to do it."

Another area legislator, however, said the workers' compensation debt of more than $3 billion may overshadow the economic development grant program, which was to provide more than $200 million statewide.

"Maybe the Legislature ought to take a minute and decide whether we can afford to issue $200 million in bonds," said Sen. Mike Oliverio, D-Monongalia and vice chair of the Senate Economic Development Committee.

He did not specify an alternative but it is known repayment of the bond issue would tap about $19 million of the state's annual gambling revenue for 30 years. That revenue stream could be used elsewhere if the bond is not issued.

Or, the bond could be issued but be applied to the workers' compensation debt instead of to grants. The governor has already proposed a separate bond issue for that purpose.

In the meantime, Estep and other would-be grant recipients are regrouping and planning to reapply if necessary.

"I am absolutely determined not to let this opportunity get away," Estep said of a complex that is already 95 percent booked and is anticipated to bring 600 jobs. "I'm saying that without any idea of how, but I'm going to work as hard as I can."

Joe Mattaliano, director of the Barbour County Economic Development Authority, expressed similar sentiments. That organization was slated for $650,000 that was to bring infrastructure improvements to the Belington Industrial Park.

"We were looking forward to that, but we respect the court's decision," Mattaliano said. "We will start Monday morning (preparing for a second) application."

For at least one of the North Central businesses, a second round may be too late, however.

GlassWorks WV of Lewis County was tentatively scheduled to receive $540,000, but only if fully approved projects failed or interest rates allowed for a bigger bond issue. GlassWorks has been in bankruptcy proceedings for more than a year and was hoping to use the grant to leverage financing for a new product line.

"Our financing has already fallen through," company President Bob Gonze said of waiting months for a decision.

He is now seeking venture capital to help the company stay in business and said any reapplication is contingent on success in that effort.

Other area projects that were awaiting fully approved funding included:

n City of Bridgeport/Genesis Partners, $6 million for development at Charles Pointe.

n West Virginia University, $2 million for a new state Fire Academy at Jackson's Mill.

n City of Morgantown/Platinum Properties, $13.9 million for a public theater and marina.

n West Virginia University, $5 million for a research park.

n National Biometric Security Project, $2 million for development of biometric technology.

n Randolph County Development Authority/Seneca Realty Co., $1.6 million for tourism development.

A handful of other area projects that had conditional approval similar to GlassWorks' included:

n Lewis County Economic Development Authority/McCabe-Henley-Durbin, $5.4 million for development at Stonewall Jackson Resort.

n City of Fairmont, $2.5 million for downtown parking garage.

n Monongalia County Development Authority/Newlink Genetics, $3.5 million for Newlink relocation into state.

n Monongalia County Schools Foundation/Monongalia County Commission/Monongalia County Development Authority, $1.3 million for business park development.

Staff writer Shannon Blosser contributed to this story. Regional Editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com