KEARNEYSVILLE – The newly-hired director of the county’s development authority has a clear vision of what is needed to spur economic growth throughout the county.
“One of the big things we need to do better here in Jefferson is marketing the county. There are a lot of assets here that are attractive to business. If we do a better job marketing those – if we get in front of the decision makers in the companies that are looking to relocate and hire – I think we’ll have better success,” said John Reisenweber, who agreed to take the reins of the Jefferson County Development Authority last week.
“The cost of living here is a lot less than down in Loudoun County. So if a company is looking to relocate or to expand, we can go to them and say, ‘Look, our taxes are lower. Our land is cheaper, and we’ve got the workers here, so put it here,’” he said. “That is the approach.”
Reisenweber speaks with considerable experience both in private business and in government. He has worked as a commercial lender at Centra Bank in Martinsburg for the last five years, serving on the Berkeley County Development Authority for much of that time. Prior to that he ran Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito’s Eastern Regional Office. He was also a consultant with Booz-Allen-Hamilton, working with the US Navy, the EPA and other federal agencies.
Reisenweber says Jefferson County offers many highly attractive assets to potential employers.
“Jefferson County has a very well educated, highly trained workforce. There are a lot of intelligent people here that commute into the DC Metro Area to work. It would be nice to keep those folks here. If we could attract some of that kind of business here then we can keep them in the county,” Reisenweber said, adding that exporting all the county’s skilled labor takes a toll at home. “When they go into the city, they take their wallet with them. Not only do we lose that intellectual capital, we lose their spending to DC.”
Jefferson County’s location and quality of life could be tremendous draws for businesses, he said.
“Another thing that employers look for is quality of life. Folks want to live in a nice place, and Jefferson County is a nice place,” he continued. “You don’t have the hustle and bustle of the city, but you’re close enough that you can go into the city. If you want to go see a professional football game, you can do that. But you don’t have be down in that mess every day. This area the best of both worlds in that sense.”
Maintaining and growing the strength of the county’s school system is also vital to attracting the kind of high-end employers that will provide good-paying jobs to residents, he said.
“One of the first thing a business asks about is the school system. I know you have had some recent layoffs, but my general sense has always been that the school system here in the county is pretty solid,” Reisenweber said. “These companies want to know that the students that come out of our schools are going to be well trained and well educated and able to work in their businesses. I think Jefferson County fits the bill.”
Reisenweber said he is often asked how Jefferson County could replicate Berkeley County’s successful bid to bring in a large distribution center for Macy’s. That, he says, is looking in the wrong direction.
“You can’t put a round peg in a square hole and expect it to work,” Reisenweber said. “The reality is that Macy’s is an internet fulfillment center, and one of the things that is crucial to a fulfillment center is a major interstate.”
“Macy’s probably wouldn’t have come here even if we had given them the land. You couldn’t have incentivized them enough without that major interstate,” he said.
Jefferson County should be looking in another direction according to Reisenweber: toward high-tech industries and government agencies.
“Certainly any internet technology or high-tech business would do very well here – things that aren’t dependent on I-81. If you have a good, high-speed connection, that is enough for many of those businesses,” Reisenweber said.
“The federal government is and has been planning in case there is something catastrophic that happens in Washington,” he said. “There are ‘Continuity of Operations’ processes put into place at a lot of the federal facilities here. That is something that can be done here and done very well. And it is a necessity in the government right now.”
“Because we are far enough away from DC but still close enough – just in the right range – operations can be relocated here.”
Nonetheless, Reisenweber said, there are some lessons that can be gleaned from Berkeley County’s successful bid for Macy’s.
“One of the things they needed was a quick turn-around on the permitting process,” he said. “We have to have a planning, permitting and approval process that is flexible enough to accommodate those needs or we are going to lose out.”
Reisenweber argues the county should scrutinize companies wishing to move into the county, a task which will be aided by his experience in commercial lending.
“If (a company) is just a fly-by-night and their finances look terrible, it may be something that we are moving mountains to get done and all we’ll wind up with is another empty building. If we look at a company and say, ‘Their finances are strong. They’ve got a good business plan. They’ve got a good model, and it works,’ then we should be more willing to take a chance on them,” he said.
If a company does offer the possibility of long-term sustainability, said Reisenweber, the county should be prepared to offer incentives such as impact fee waivers to encourage them to choose Jefferson over other potential locations.
“Anything we can do to make it more palatable for businesses to relocate here is a good thing,” he said. “Any additional enticement we can offer to a potential employer is a good thing, because you can rest assured that other jurisdictions are doing that, even if they don’t have impact fees.”
“That’s not to say that you should just get rid of them entirely, but having the flexibility to waive them on a case-by-case basis could be a good thing,” Reisenweber said.
The county’s business climate could also be improved by efforts to improve transportation infrastructure, said Reisenweber.
“What has happened with Route 9 in the last couple years has been a huge shot in the arm, and that will help. But there is still some more that has to be done here from a transportation standpoint.”
“Transportation infrastructure is always going to be a need. Those are large-scale, expensive projects that require, almost without fail, federal dollars. I feel like I can bring a lot to the table there,” Reisenweber said, citing his experience dealing with government.
“Let’s face it the federal government’s budget is going to get a lot tighter. It is just inevitable. Projects are going to have to be won on their merit, as opposed to just political ‘waiving of the wand’ – which is how a lot of things used to get done around here,” he said. “When we can show that a transportation project will vastly improve economic development opportunities, then we can make the case that that case is worthy of federal dollars.”