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Some Wal-Martless counties would like one closer to home

by Paul Darst

STAFF WRITER

Isolated and far off the beaten path, a vacant lot in Ritchie County apparently has caught the attention of Wal-Mart officials.

The tract of land has no water, no sewer and is not easily accessible. A lot of dirt will have to be moved before construction can begin there.

But the land is rumored to be one of the potential new frontiers for the mammoth retail chain, which already has a presence in most parts of North Central West Virginia.

"If one went in there, it would help Ritchie, Doddridge and Tyler counties, and possibly even Pleasants," said Sam Rogers, president of the Ritchie County Commission.

"Wal-Mart officials were here looking at locations, but as far as anything official, there's nothing that I know of," Rogers said. "They just looked at a piece of property. There is no development on that property yet. Nothing has matured at this time."

Although county leaders have received no official word from Wal-Mart about the possibilities of a store being built anywhere in the area, they do understand what such construction could mean.

Officials in other Wal-Martless counties understand those implications too.

"We would be thrilled to death to have one," said Ora Ash, Doddridge County Commission president.

Not only would such a store provide more tax dollars for county coffers, but also convenience for residents, Ash said.

"Clarksburg's (Wal-Mart) is the closest one to us," Ash said. "A lot of people from Doddridge County go there.

"I work in Clarksburg, and I'm in that one quite a bit. I see a lot of people from Doddridge in there -- and that's just the people I know."

Doddridge and Ritchie residents have few choices for shopping. Neither county has many retailers, Ash said.

"West Union has a few convenience stores," he said. "We used to have a nickel-and-dime store."

Residents of the area do have a Foodland for grocery shopping, but for other kinds of bargain hunting, they must travel. That is a half-hour drive from the east end of Doddridge County, he said.

For most residents of Ritchie County, the closest Wal-Mart is in Vienna, a long drive away, Rogers said.

But having a Wal-Mart closer to home would mean more than just shopping convenience, he said. A store could spur other development in the area, he said.

"If Wal-Mart moves in out there, others might say, 'If they think there's enough business there, maybe we should move there too,'" Rogers said.

Officials in both counties believe their combined populations, along with those of surrounding areas, might be enough to justify construction of a Wal-Mart.

But officials in neither county have actively pursued the retailer on the subject.

"There are few things counties can do," Rogers said. "The way the system is structured is that the state has the majority of control.

"Counties have some tools (to attract businesses) through the state economic development authority, like tax breaks. But counties don't have much bearing on those matters."

One way state and local governments can attract new businesses is by upgrading infrastructure. In Doddridge County, two tracts of land adjacent to U.S. Route 50 recently had water and sewer access installed, Ash said.

Land next to major highways and equipped with utilities can help attract development, he said.

Although Wal-Marts themselves can lead to additional development, Ritchie County officials are hopeful progress already underway will make their area more attractive to organizations like the retail chain.

A project near North Bend State Park might provide the stimulus for such growth, Rogers said.

"We're building a 305-acre lake that will provide water for all of Ritchie County," Rogers said.

Many communities in the county, like Pennsboro, have water supply problems, he said. The new lake will solve those issues, he said.

But it might do more than that, Rogers said. A lake that size could help increase tourism, and even the county's population, which likely would make the area more attractive to a large retailer, he said.

Regardless of the kind of development and growth the lake could inspire, its job as a supplier of one of the basic necessities of life is most important, Rogers said.

"One of the biggest pluses is that we'll have plenty of water," he said.

Staff writer Paul Darst can be reached at 626-1404.

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