CHESTER - When West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin arrived in Chester Monday afternoon, he brought more than just a big check - he brought renewed hope for the people of Chester and the rest of Hancock County.
Tomblin visited Chester Monday afternoon to present a $200,000 check to Pat Ford, Executive Director of the Business Development Corporation of the Northern Panhandle (BDC), and the rest of the BDC in order to aid in the funding of the soon-to-be demolition of the former TS&T Pottery, an event that the residents of Chester have been waiting for and working toward for many years. The Hancock County Commission also presented their $500,000 check to the BDC.
According to Chester Mayor Ken Morris, Tomblin made a promise to him and the citizens of Chester when he first visited the TS&T site a few short months ago.
West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin speaks to the crowd at the Site Demolition Ceremony for the former TS&T Pottery site on Monday. Tomblin gave $200,000 to the cause. (Photo by Kate Everly)
"I told him that he was the fourth governor to come see the site, and I wanted him to be the last," said Morris. "We've had four governors, senators, congressmen, you name it. It's not a matter of that we didn't try and do something, we didn't have a lot of people wanting to listen to us. Governor Tomblin came up and he listened to us."
The journey of the TS&T Pottery site, which had sat vacant for the past 22 years, truly began in January 2011 when the Northern WV Brownfields Assistance Center (NBAC) began working with the Brooke-Hancock-Jefferson Metropolitan Planning Commission and the City of Chester.
When the NBAC was awarded a $5,000 FOCUS WV grant, the group began to work together with the city to form a task force comprised of residents, council members, local business people, and the site's property owners. This group came to be called the Rock Springs Riverfront Redevelopment Committee (RSRRC). The RSRRC and NBAC conducted research on the site, gathered information on the site, and began to plan for what the site might be used for in the future.
The BDC purchased the property and held a Community Visioning Workshop in October 2011 "in order to gather input and engage the citizens of Chester." The BDC has remained active in the RSRRC since their purchase of the property.
According to Ford, Chester residents have been asking to have something done about the dangerous eyesore for many years.
"As it continued to crumble, this site posed mounting health and safety concerns. Those complaints have continued for almost three decades," said Ford. "Today, however, because of Governor Tomblin and the Hancock County Commission, a clean site and future employment opportunities are within our grasp."
Ford said the the Hancock County Commission first approached the BDC in March of 2011 to propose a partnership in order to do something about the defunct pottery. According to Ford, the commissioners had a vision of the site that would "create jobs, expand the tax base, and have an immediate impact on Hancock County."
"The message of the Hancock County Commission on this venture is the same as Governor Tomblin's message, to improve the business climate of our county, generate jobs, and be responsive to the requests of the residents of Hancock County," said Ford.
Ford credits the Hancock County Commission with much of the progress that has been made on the demolition of the remaining, asbestos lined pieces of the pottery. The commission loaned the BDC $500,000 towards the demolition of remediation of the site.
"For years one of our goals has been to promote economic growth. We just couldn't get it done, it was like we were stuck in the mud, but today I think we are putting it into four-wheel drive and moving forward," said Commissioner Mike Swartzmiller. "What we found out was that it takes a state to promote economic growth. We couldn't do it alone, we needed help."
Swartzmiller said the growth of the project has been slow, but that he is encouraged by where it is at today.
"What a great day for Chester, what a great day for the county, what a great day for economic growth, and hopefully phase three is going to be jobs, jobs, jobs," said Swartzmiller.
Commissioner Dan Greathouse brought TS&T dinnerware with him to Monday's event to showcase what the site once was and what it has the potential to be again.
"That place has been gone for a long time. It created quality, quality dinnerware and employed a lot of people," said Greathouse. "What it did at the time, we believe it is time for a new beginning. What comes out of there will be just as great and beneficial to the citizens of Hancock County, Chester, and the tri-state area. Great days are coming up."
Ford spoke of Tomblin's previous successes in encouraging business in the state, implementing new jobs, and expanding already present businesses. According to Ford, it is not suggested to tell Tomblin that anything is impossible.
"Never tell Governor Earl Ray Tomblin that it is impossible to tear down an abandoned factory, abandoned for over three decades, has exposed asbestos, poses a threat to the public's health and safety, and basically costs lots of money to clean up, because you may be standing here celebrating the demolition of the former TS&T Pottery," said Ford.
Tomblin said that during his previous visit to the TS&T Pottery site, he had taken pictures of the crumbling buildings with his phone.
"They remind me every time I scan through my camera roll of what I promised that day. I said I'll be the last governor to see the site and how we got it done was because of local community support, because of the mayor, the town council, the BDC, the county commission, senators, the delagates, all working together," said Tomblin. Today we finally have the resources put together to be able to bring that building down. I want to come back here in a year or so and cut the ribbon on something and create some jobs in Chester."
According to Ford, thanks to Tomblin and the county commissioners, the community has a lot to be excited about.
"The residents of Chester and Hancock County do not have to wait any longer," said Ford. "Governor Tomblin and the Hancock County Commission have breathed new life into this site."