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ARC Big boost or bust?

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

Is the Appalachian Regional Commission doing what it needs to in West Virginia? That largely depends on whom you ask.

More developed counties, such as transitional-classified Harrison and Marion, have seen a significant amount of ARC dollars over the last 35 years as part of the commission's growth-center philosophy.

In fact, ARC officials refer to the Benedum Airport in Bridgeport as one of the commission's best success stories region wide.

Roger Diaz, president of the Benedum Airport Authority, agreed the ARC has been important to that facility's success, providing seed money at key times. Most recently, the ARC approved a $500,000 grant in March that the authority will use as leverage to borrow an additional $1.5 million to build a hangar.

"It will allow us to rent that (hangar) to Pratt & Whitney and they can expand without any additional cash outflow," Diaz said of the move, which will add approximately 17 jobs to the company's 359.

One customer has already committed to switch its business to Pratt & Whitney Engine Services, Inc. because of the hangar. The expansion will allow the engine-repair company to swap engines out of small jets, repair them and swap them back in a period of days.

Benedum's ARC funding goes all the way back to 1968, only three years into the federal program. Over the years, the airport has received $3,590 for sewage treatment in 1968, $150,321 for general improvements in 1973, nearly $1 million for infrastructure improvements in 1990 and the current $500,000.

"In some cases, without ARC we would not have been able to do projects," Diaz added.

The situation is similar in Marion County, where a development official said road money has been especially helpful. Marion County received $7.5 million between 1965 and 1999.

"We've been very successful with them," said Charlie Reese, Chamber of Commerce president and executive director of the county development agency.

Among the county's funded projects are the construction of improvements to nursing homes, Fairmont General Hospital, Fairmont State College, Marion County Landfill, water tanks, sewer line extensions and an industrial park access road Reese said stopped two businesses from relocating.

Most recently, the county secured $1.3 million in the late 1990s to assist development at its high-technology park on I-79.

As the ARC moves toward spending more of its non-highway funding in distressed counties, as which Marion does not qualify, Reese said what has been spent in Marion already has been advantageous to the whole region employment wise.

"It is a long list," he said of funded projects. "But it is a very high-quality list. Those are good, honest projects. It's not pork."

Robin Poling, Lewis County's economic development director, is convinced that her community, which qualifies as distressed, could also develop such a list. However, they just haven't been able to get it funded to date.

In comparison, about $400,000 of ARC money has been granted to Lewis in the last 35 years. Factoring in population -- Marion County had 56,318 residents as of 1998, Harrison had 70,891 and Lewis had 17,427 -- Marion got $133.39 per capita, Harrison, $84.32 and Lewis, $22.93

"We don't feel like we've gotten a fair shake with the ARC," Poling said. "One of the problems, for us, is that they traditionally don't fund projects that involve a public and private partnership."

Lewis County's water is supplied by West Virginia American Water Co., a private business. The county is planning to extend 12 miles of water lines in the near future.

"We're going to have to go somewhere to get the money," Poling said, adding county officials are already working with Region VII Planning and Development Council, a state agency, to seek other avenues.

Poling said Lewis does plan to seek ARC funding, although, for a wastewater treatment plant it hopes to build in Jane Lew at some point in the future.

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com.

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