WHEELING - Ohio County Administrator Greg Stewart reports sales tax collection at The Highlands have remained strong in recent years even as other retail developments across the nation experienced a downturn.
Retail sales at The Highlands were up 6 percent last year, compared to a national increase in sales of just 1.8 percent, according to Stewart.
"It's good - we're on fine footing," he said. "We feel good with the 6 percent sales increase. It's excellent compared to today's market."
Stewart said it is the goal of the Ohio County Commission and the Ohio County Development Authority to add "three to four" new tenants at The Highlands each year, which in turn pay rent to the authority. The resulting money then can be invested in projects to create more infrastructure and buildings on the property, he continued.
"We still carry the traditional debt, but all our bills are up to date, " Stewart said.
Ohio County Commissioner Randy Wharton, also president of the Ohio County Development Authority, agreed the county's plan to attract three to four new tenants each year has helped the authority and The Highlands to grow financially stronger.
He said it has been a priority of the authority to keep its finances in order, as well as to fill any empty spaces at The Highlands.
In 2013, the authority paid back the commission and the county taxpayers $800,000 it was advanced to begin The Highlands development. After this, the Ohio County Development Authority was separated from county operations upon the advice of state auditors.
Wharton said the moves were important to strengthening the position of The Highlands in the financial communities. He also credited the authority's employees who work at The Highlands property - cutting grass, pushing snow and tending the property - with being a major reason for its success.
"The Development Authority is a very nice company, and it shows a profit every year," he said.
A major goal for The Highlands in 2014 is getting funding plans for a second interchange under way. Commissioner Orphy Klempa said the development authority's main goal is to get a state law passed that would allow the authority to use tax increment financing to construct a second interchange. The law calls for expanding the existing TIF district from 300 to 500 acres. The expansion would encompass nearby car dealerships and other businesses across Interstate 70, allowing the OCDA to benefit from the sales tax generated by those businesses. That money could then be used to cover the cost of building the interchange.
While Klempa said occasional traffic doesn't bother him at the site, another interchange in the back half of the development would decrease congestion. The interchange should also help further development of the site. The county has estimated the interchange would cost about $23 million and an interior access road about $15 million.