EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a series of articles on economic development and growth in Madison County.
Thirty years ago, if someone told you the village of West Jefferson was going to be a development hotspot, they’d probably laugh at you. Then again, perhaps the same would have happened if you said this about Dublin in Franklin County.
From 1980 onwards, West Jefferson has hovered around 4,500 citizens, give or take a few hundred.
But then now it’s steadily climbing largely due to almost two decades of industrial development. Today, the village is on the cusp of becoming the second city within Madison County.
The Golden Triangle
What most would call the village’s secret to success isn’t much of a secret. Two highways, State Route 29 and U.S. Route 40, intersect in an area very close to downtown.
Those two highways are well traveled, making the area near them a lucrative spot for distribution and manufacturing as things can be sent everywhere.
“It’s just like what realtors say: location, location, location,” said Village Council president Steve Johnston. “The great benefit for the village has been location. Fifty percent of Americans live east of the Mississippi, and we are in the heart of that. We’re six to eight hours from everything, Louisville, Chicago and the eastern seaboard.”
Johnston said it started with Target’s distribution center, nestled in the heart of the triangle. The corporation found success with the village, which attracted FedEx to open a facility, too. This began an upward spiral with more and more corporations.
Whether they specialize in being third party distribution and logistics or are working to ship in-house, seven more companies have popped up there over the years such as Ace Hardware, Bon Ton, Toagosei and more. An auto parts manufacturer called Jefferson Industries, also known as JIC, has even made the park their home.
“The recession really didn’t hit us a hard as other places because of our development,” said Johnston. “It’s that powerful for us.”
Their real secret is collaboration and having a plan. Mayor Ray Martin said he, Johnston and the rest of council seek to collaborate for the sake of the village.
“The level of trust and respect council has for one another and the administration is a blessing,” said Martin. “We might disagree but we don’t fight each other.”
They also seek help outward to people such as specialty lawyers and Madison County Chamber of Commerce and county CIC Director David Kell. Both Johnston and Martin have said Kell has been a huge help.
“I offer and give suggestions on how to partner with the business park there,” said Kell. “There’s opportunities to attract even more workers to there.”
The village takes all advice and opinions of its partners seriously which has created standards that companies are aware of.
“We have a set criteria which makes this place a level playing field,” said Martin. “Companies know what they’re getting into. It’s not just location, which is huge. It’s a climate, too.”
Part of that is setting up favorable tax agreements and other policy tools to make it even more attractive for companies. A good example was a recent agreement for JIC to build a new 61,000-square-foot addition to its facility.
The agreement will give JIC a 100 percent abatement on its property taxes for 15 years on the addition, an investment valued at $7.5 million along with more than $11 million in machinery.
The addition is set to bring 20 full-time permanent jobs to the auto parts manufacturing plant over the course of three years, a payroll valued at $680,000. As part of the deal, the company must also retain its existing 512 full-time positions, maintaining the current payroll of about $28.8 million.
Kell said the JIC expansion should be completed soon, likely the fall.
Usually these agreements are a formula for success but Martin acknowledged it’s a competitive world. Sometimes deals go elsewhere, but he said he’s proud of the success.
Part of companies coming in are new avenues for tax revenue. As the coffers increase, the village has been able to update it’s infrastructure.
“We can address issues faster without having to increase taxes on residents,” said Johnston. “It’s allowed us to repair roads that we would normally wait for, it’s given us an opportunity to build a great water treatment facility. It’s a reverse osmosis facility, one of the first in the state … they produce some of the purest water you can drink.”
Johnston said that the water facility alone offered space for development as it has far more capacity than what the village needs.
It’s akin to a layer cake, with the tax revenue comes an ability to invest in infrastructure. With that, it makes the area more conducive to all sorts of development which in turn attracts more population.
This in turn makes retail more lucrative and it has increased, for sure.
Local businesses have been popping up and sustaining themselves. Just this year, Coffee and doughnut shop Daily Buzz opened up along with a print shop called Holy Shnikies and most recently gyro and Mediterranean restaurant, Eat Greek.
“There’s this proximity to Columbus but it is still a smaller town,” said Kell. “But from what I hear is that people in that community. What you see is attraction of small retail to the storefronts downtown. They see the opportunity is there and they want to start a business in West Jefferson, their home.”
Martin concurred and said much of these efforts are from residents, for example with the Daily Buzz being an effort of a local family owned barbershop called At the Buzzer.
“People see an interest and a need and they meet them,” he said. “It’s been great, I haven’t seen this many full store fronts in a while. The shopping center where Eat Greek and Holy Shnikies moved was more empty than I’d like for a while.”
City of the future?
There’s even more development on the horizon.
In March, The Madison Press interviewed Russ Miller the owner of some 440 acres at the corner of U.S. Route 40 and Plain City-Georgesville Road Southeast, just east of the village.
His plan is to bring a massive housing development for all sorts of people, Condos, family homes, large estates and apartments while working with Harmony Development, a land developing group based out of Columbus.
At the time, Miller estimated the project with take eight years and $350 million to complete.
This had the added benefit of encouraging Kroger to come in and plan to open a grocery store near that area. It will be called “Fresh Eats,” a new type of store that is aimed at a community like West Jefferson.
The floor plan presented included produce, deli, beer, wine and floral departments, as well as a drive-through pharmacy and a Starbucks with indoor and outdoor seating.
Part of the deal will involve the village extending water and sewer to the area, but the cost will be recouped through extra usage fees given to the development over the next several years.
This growth naturally means more people, possibly more than 4,000 in the village.
In Ohio, once a municipality hits 5,000, it becomes a city.
Martin said that there would likely be population growth that would get near the 5,000 mark sooner rather than later. But, he said the village is trying to stave that off until after 2020 because with becoming a city comes new responsibilities, such as additional road maintenance, certain required positions such as a new safety director and more.
“It’s going to happen, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “But I want us to be well prepared for that. As with development, we want to have a plan so transitions go smoothly. It’s that simple.”
Next in part 4: Businesses work to build community in Mount Sterling.
Maximilian Kwiatkowski can be reached at 740-852-1616, ext. 1617, or on Twitter @msfkwiat.