County EDA discusses new economic zones, incentives at retreat

Staff writer

In the coming year, the James City’s Economic Development Authority wants to explore creation of new economic development zones, incentives and workforce training opportunities.

In a wide-ranging discussion at a retreat held Thursday at Freedom Park, authority members and staff discussed Strategic Investment Areas and Technology Zones, which would focus economic development in specific areas — particularly the Grove area — and attract technology industries to the county, respectively. They also debated the creation of a codified incentives toolkit to attract or retain businesses, and agreed vocational training programs to support local industries built along the lines of ChefsGO 1.0 would be worth looking into.

Economic development zones

Much of the retreat was given over to discussion of two staff-generated proposals to introduce Strategic Investment Areas and Technology Zones to James City.

Strategic Investment Areas would allow the county to better utilize limited resources and focus development in specific areas, Economic Development Authority director Amy Jordan said.

The Strategic Investment Areas would allow for special incentives and zone-specific design guidelines to be implemented. There would also be economic impact and market absorption studies, as well as guiding master plans.

“It’s something that’s done in a lot of places,” Jordan said. “It’s taking that area we want to focus on and thinking about what it’s going to look like in five, 10 even 20 years.”

Two areas the county could look at implementing this idea are the Jamestown area and Grove.

Grove is desirable for the proposed program because it is a distressed area that has industrial park real estate.

“We have the option to do some really exciting things out there,” authority chairwoman Robin Bledsoe said.

The Jamestown area is the site of ongoing or planned county economic development efforts — including capital improvements at James City County Marina and Amblers House.

After some discussion, the authority members agreed staff should focus on Grove as a testing ground for the concept. Given that community planning is a component of the zone’s concept, staff should look at ways to foster community enrichment and sustainability — namely how to attract a grocery store to the area.

The Strategic Investment Areas would also serve to maintain the county’s rural character in areas outside the primary service area, according to a county memo. The primary service area is a region of the county that has access to, or is expected to have access to, utilities and is intended to be developed.

Staff also floated the idea of Technology Zones. The zones are essentially what they sound like — places where the county would encourage high-tech commercial businesses to set up shop or invest.

The Technology Zone is in the Virginia Code, and allows localities that establish such a zone to offer tax incentives and regulatory flexibility to desirable businesses. Perks can include an up to 10-year reduction of permit fees, user fees and taxes, special zoning or exemptions from ordinances.

The Technology Zone is a flexible designation, and it could be applied to follow the borders of the primary service area. Alternatively, the county could choose to focus the designation in specific areas like Grove or New Town, Jordan said.

Any commercial or industrial development inside the area could qualify for the perks. A qualifying business would need to fit at least one of the following categories: advanced manufacturing, professional services like defense logistics or engineering services, science or technology.

There’s a need to educate people on existing economic development zones. Grove was declared an Opportunity Zone in May but more could be done to communicate that and how to take advantage of it, Jordan said.

These development zones could be leveraged to address some economic shortfalls in the county. There’s a lack of cold storage and tractor-trailer parking in the county, as well as a dearth of affordable housing for tourism and retail workers, as well as young professionals, Jordan said.

Incentives and workforce development

There may be value in creating an incentive toolkit, which would allow the county to more rapidly and more easily provide incentives to businesses.

“If we can create that type of tool kit … I think that would be a big step for us,” Bledsoe said.

Other members of the authority were less enthusiastic about the idea, saying it might be difficult to create incentive programs without knowing the specifics of individual business’ needs before any conversations start.

Another topic of note at the retreat was workforce development. ChefsGo 1.0, a recently launched culinary training program coordinated by Thomas Nelson Community College and local restaurants, could be replicated for other industries, said authority member Robin Carson, who is the program coordinator.

Trades, like welders and plumbers, as well as the healthcare field are local industries that could particularly benefit from such programming, which the authority was interested in seeing more done on how to build those programs.

“We believe there’s a much greater need and much greater market out there,” Carson said.

Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, jojacobs@vagazette.com, @jajacobs_

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