BUCKHANNON — The Upshur County Development Authority took some time to celebrate the successes of the past year while looking ahead to 2018 and beyond.
The UCDA received roughly $5 million in grants last year — one for the new knowledge and innovation center on Main Street and the second for a large-scale broadband project that will impact three counties including Upshur.
“We have had a very busy year,” UCDA executive director Rob Hinton said at the organization’s annual meeting.
“We have had a lot of success this year…from a project standpoint and achieving some of the goals we set out to do.”
“They always say going after and getting the money is the easy part and the execution is where you really find out if you are going to be successful or not,” he said. “So, moving forward the big thing we have to focus on is executing on the new success we have had coming out of this fiscal year.”
The United States Department of Agriculture awarded a $3 million grant for Barbour, Randolph and Upshur counties that will be matched with $450,000 in local funds to deploy fixed wireless broadband to 3,600 households and businesses in the three counties.
The anticipated coverage is 985 square miles reaching 9,100 residents.
“Will service be available outside of this area?” Hinton asked. “It could, but for the purpose of this grant we had to guarantee service in whatever areas we said we were going to go into.”
The project will take about two years to build and is already getting recognition. Hinton was even contacted by Microsoft about potential collaboration.
Broadband is one of Hinton’s passions.
“I have the privilege to serve as the chairman of the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council, which is a huge benefit to this area,” he said.
Hinton said it gives the advantage of knowing what projects are on the horizon.
The second major grant is the $2.3 million awarded for the knowledge and innovation center — or what may be called the IDEA center, according to Hinton.
“I said a long time ago the most important thing about increasing the diversity of our economy is to increase the knowledgeable workers, increase knowledge-based businesses we have here in Upshur County, and take advantage of the global marketplace,” he said. “One of the things we wanted to do was build an innovation center — build a facility that is a modern, professional office space that has the capabilities to attract and retain modern-day, business-knowledgeable workers.
“In order to do that, broadband is a key but also having that space is a key. We submitted a grant last year and that came back positive for us.”
Although the grant was for just $2.3 million, the UCDA was able to move forward with the project on a slightly smaller scale.
“We resized our project,” Hinton said. “That is one of the things we discussed when we were notified we were going to receive a little less than what we asked. We said, ‘Is it OK if we build a smaller building rather than come up with $700,000 more than what we expected?’ and they accepted that offer.
“We resized the building, so we will end up with a 23,400 square foot, three-story office building.”
Occupancy for the building is expected in January 2019.
The innovation center “creates a foundation for knowledge business growth for the area,” he said. “It’s also a catalyst for [fiber to the home] buildout.”
“We will have wireless broadband deployment in portions of the county that have zero broadband service where you can get 50 to 100 megs of service,” he added. “In the downtown district, Main Street from the college to the hospital, will be the first fiber buildout and will light up downtown Buckhannon. That will have unlimited capacity. That is another selling point for building the knowledge-based economy is to have that kind of activity and access at those levels.”
Hinton also recognized the work of Susie Higgins, the small business development coach housed in the UCDA office.
“I can’t emphasize enough how much of an asset we have with Susie Higgins and how much of an impact she has had as a business coach working with the Upshur County Development Authority.”
In 2015, the UCDA finalized an agreement with the West Virginia Small Business Development Center to provide office space for Higgins.
It’s an investment that has already paid dividends.
Forty-six percent of the clients that Higgins serves are in Upshur County.
In total, Higgins has helped businesses secure 82 loans/equity and access to capital of just over $4 million.
There have been 154 new jobs created or retained with Higgins’ help and she has served 152 clients to date.
“Susie will be a very important part of the resources we will have available at our innovation center,” he said.
Moving forward, the UCDA and Small Business Development Center will look at how that can be expanded to create more resources to increase the diversity of businesses created locally.
Local food is still one of the UCDA’s initiatives, according to Hinton.
“We still are working with A.F. Wendling’s with a business plan to move forward with a centralized aggregation center and flash freezing unit,” Hinton said. “One of the things we provided was leadership. Keith Buchanan and Chris Wendling are really taking the lead on being able to implement that business.”
“We didn’t want to be the one going into business,” Hinton said of the UCDA’s role. “We want to lay the tools in front of the private sector, show them the opportunities and let them take advantage of those opportunities.
“This would create enormous opportunity from a standpoint of local farming and having access to commercial markets. They are looking at being able to take product in during the summer time and harvest season.”
However, selling on the fresh market there is not a big profit margin, according to Hinton.
If those foods can be harvested and then flash-frozen for the wholesale market, it can increase the profit margin and more of the end dollar trickles down to the farm.
“This is a very, very exciting project about the impact it would have across the state,” he said. “We have been bringing stakeholders together from all different regions to keep this ball moving forward.”
Another project this year was the unveiling out of a new website at www.upshurda.com and a new logo for the organization. Hinton recognized county administrator Carrie Wallace for her assistance in the design phase.
Hinton said with the new website live, the office has been working on increasing its communication through the website as well as its social media platforms, particularly Facebook.