Procter & Gamble planned to break ground Friday on a $500 million West Virginia manufacturing hub, a project expected to create hundreds of jobs as one of the largest economic development projects in the state's history.
The Cincinnati-based multinational manufacturer said the plant is expected to employ 700 people full-time once it opens, affording relatively swift access to the bulk of its East Coast customers from the site at Tabler Station in the state's Eastern Panhandle.
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Some 1,000 temporary construction positions are to become available as construction begins next month, leading up to the 2017 opening of the plant — only the second to be built by Procter & Gamble in the U.S. since 1971.
Procter & Gamble considered 70 locations. The company said the West Virginia site lets it reach nearly 80 percent of retail customers and consumers in the eastern half of the country within a one-day transit. Washington, D.C. is 80 miles away, Baltimore 100 miles and New York City, 265 miles away.
"We had essentially created a unicorn in this marketplace, and we knew it," said Stephen Christian, Berkeley County Economic Development Authority executive director. "We knew we were the biggest (site) that was available in the mid-Atlantic section of the I-81 corridor."
About two years before Procter & Gamble was drawn to the site in Berkeley County, Christian explained that county officials borrowed $2 million and more than doubled the size of an existing industrial park before setting out to hunt for Fortune 500 companies.
The Berkeley County officials said having that "mega-industrial" park in place helped Berkeley County land the plant. West Virginia is the least populated state in a competitive region for landing new businesses. Parts of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania are just a few dozen miles' driving distance or less from the site.
During negotiations, Christian said, the field was narrowed to Tabler Station and Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, a few miles from a Procter & Gamble distribution center in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. But Tabler Station had the advantage due to the larger size of that site, Christian said.
In 2012, Berkeley County tapped into $2 million in bonds to help the Tabler Station Industrial Park grow from 240 acres to more than 580 acres along a critical Interstate 81 corridor just outside Martinsburg. Six years earlier, Berkeley took out a $6 million bond to shape the park. The region is a bedroom community to both Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
The Eastern Panhandle, unlike most of West Virginia, continues to grow. The region generally boasts a younger, better educated and more centrally located workforce.
"If you think about Martinsburg, you have Shenandoah Valley National Park, you have Washington, D.C., Baltimore, you have Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) just up the interstate," said Procter & Gamble spokesman Jeff LeRoy. "It's just a very good community for living and raising a family."
The facility will stretch more than 1 million square feet across 458 acres and produce multiple brands. The company hasn't publicly identified which brands will be manufactured on site. It also hasn't specified an average salary for the jobs to be created. Company products span a gamut including personal care, household cleaning, laundry detergents and prescription drugs, with sales totaling about $83 billion in the 2014 budget year.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said the company is coordinating with community and technical college officials on training options.
Procter & Gamble wouldn't say why it opted for West Virginia over other sites, but stressed a need for a lot of space.
"When you go looking for parcels of land that are bundled in that size, it's not as easy as you think," LeRoy said.
Procter & Gamble's deal includes a 20-year abatement on property taxes in Berkeley County, with the biggest tax savings in the first five years and required job creation and investment benchmarks.
The state is chipping in $8.5 million for infrastructure improvements, including roads, water, sewer, power, gas lines and relocation of a cell tower, said Commerce Department spokeswoman Chelsea Ruby.
After the industrial park expansion, Christian said he spent most of 2013 contacting real estate firms for Fortune 500 companies. He was encourage by the fact that the department store chain Macy's liked the location and labor market enough in 2012 to open a $150 million, 1.3-million-square-foot distribution center in Martinsburg.
In November 2013, local officials heard from a real estate firm that represented something being billed as "Project Independence." But the officials didn't know Procter & Gamble was the interested company until May 2014, Christian said.
The company disclosed plans for its manufacturing hub in February.