A main focus for economic and industrial development in Washington this year, as in the past, will be helping existing industries expand and add jobs.
That’s the word from Darren Lamb, Washington’s community and economic development director, and Bill Miller Sr., president of the city’s 353 Redevelopment Corporation and Civic Industrial Corporation.
“This year, our best hope is for expanding existing industry,” Lamb said in an interview this week.
“That’s been our history of growth. It’s mainly been with existing industries,” Miller added.
While Lamb’s office worked with 16 new industrial prospects during 2013, none has made a decision yet to locate here.
“It was not a great year on landing prospects,” Miller remarked. “We spent a lot of time with prospects and a lot of prospects looked at sites, but they have trouble pulling the trigger.”
Lamb said the prospects “were pleased with Washington,” and that the decision to reduce the price of land in Heidmann Industrial Park “opened a few doors for us.”
Washington in cooperation with East Central College and the city of Union, participated in a product readiness assessment sponsored by the Missouri Partnership. An independent consultant evaluated industrial sites and what the city could offer to prospects.
Based on that evaluation, the decision was made to reduce the price of industrial lots to improve marketing of those sites, Lamb explained.
“We have an attractive (industrial) park,” he said. “They said that.”
Lamb noted that most of the prospects are looking for existing buildings rather than land.
“We’ve always been flexible in helping industries locate here,” Miller said. “We’ve always been concerned about the environment” in regards to the types of industries locating here, he added.
A major problem facing the redevelopment corporation is what to do with a 41-acre site it owns on the south side of Highway 100, south of the Heidmann Industrial Park, Miller said. The cost to prepare the site is very high, he added, and the corporation may have to go to the city for help in grading and excavating the property.
When voters approved extending the half-cent capital improvement sales tax, $3 million was dedicated for community and industrial development, Lamb noted. Approximately half of that was used to fund construction of the team track rail siding at the end of West Main Street and for airport improvements, he said.
Lamb said he’s hopeful that an existing industry looking to expand will purchase one of the last remaining lots in the Heidmann park this year.
Last year, city leaders started visiting with industrial plant owners and managers to learn about their plans and how the city could help them.
“They (visits) have been very beneficial,” Lamb remarked. “We need to keep in touch with them (industries).”
Lamb noted that this year plans are to continue those visits and take them “to the next level.”
In 2012, the city in cooperation with East Central College’s Workforce Development Office, the Four Rivers Career Center, other cities in Franklin County and existing industries, began the Work Ready Community initiative that uses the existing National Career Readiness Certificate. That is a work-related skills credential, providing objective documentation of employees’ skills that can be accepted on a nationwide scale, according to Lamb.
“It’s recognized as a tool for bringing new industries to a community,” Miller noted.
By certifying in advance the education levels and skills of potential workers, it reduces the amount of time employers spend on screening applicants, Lamb said
CG Power Systems, which has two manufacturing plants here, has taken “full advantage” of the certification process and is being viewed as a model company for the initiative.
“It makes us more marketable. It puts us on a national scale and helps us attract companies,” Lamb remarked.
Washington had two major happenings in industrial development last year, according to Miller and Lamb.
One was the acquisition of Computech Inc. by Melton Machine and Control Co. which moved the company into the building at the corner of Highway 100 and Vossbrink Drive that had been occupied by the Harman/Becker company.
The other was the expansion of GH Tool & Mold into the former beer distributor warehouse on WW Industrial Drive.
“Those two things were major pluses last year,” Miller remarked.
Lamb said getting a new tenant in the Harman/Becker building was a “win-win” situation.
In early 2013, the city also completed work on developing the $4 million team track rail siding.
Miller said it’s been a disappointment that more industries aren’t using the team track.
Lamb, however, said he’s optimistic the team track will be utilized in the future. He referred to the large amount of grant funds the city received for the team track and the fact that it led to removal of the old rail siding on Front Street where a new public parking lot recently was built.
In 2013, the city also formed a Strategic Planning Committee that is comprised of some 353 Redevelopment Corporation directors and advisory members from East Central College and both area high schools.
Lamb said the purpose of the committee is to self-evaluate Washington’s product and provide a mission statement with goals and objectives specific to future economic development.
He said the plan is to develop “dashboard indicators” of progress and hopeful successes for the next three to five years.
Miller and Lamb both spoke about the great cooperation the 353 Corporation and economic development office have had with various agencies, including the city, East Central College, the Missouri Department of Economic Development, the governor’s office, the Missouri Department of Transportation, the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Union Pacific Railroad.
“I really feel we couldn’t ask for better cooperation from the state,” Miller commented.
One thing that needs to be pursued is continued expansion of Highway 100 to four lanes all the way to Vossbrink Drive, Miller noted.
However, funding for major projects is no longer available to MoDOT unless voters approve some form of taxing initiative.
There is a proposal to ask voters to approve a statewide 1-cent transportation sales tax in November. That measure will depend on the state Legislature authorizing the election or obtaining enough signatures through the initiative petition process to place it on the ballot.
Lamb said city leaders plan to work with local legislators this year to make them more aware of the transportation needs in the area.
There also is a need for more affordable housing in Washington to get workers to move to this area, Miller and Lamb noted.
“The industrial economy in Washington is very strong. Employment is solid. We have more jobs than we can fill. But we have to come to grips with that 41 acres,” Miller said. “On the horizon, things are bright. One worry is a trained work force. Another thing we need is housing.
“We’re optimistic even though we don’t have immediate prospects coming in,” he remarked.