Tuesday, March 19, 2013
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Metro columnist Dan Casey: Commerce Park news is greeted with yawn, sigh

Dan Casey is The Roanoke Times' metro columnist.

dan.casey
@roanoke.com

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Last week, the New River Valley Commerce Park announced that it finally had landed its first tenant - more than 15 years after the 1,000-plus acre park was conceived by local pooh-bahs.

I couldn't wait to share this news with the greatest expert I know on this subject.

His name is Paul Dellinger, and for 44 years he was a reporter for The Roanoke Times. He retired in 2007, and by that time he was a legend. He still lives in Wytheville.

The last 10 years of his career, Dellinger spent covering - among other things - Commerce Park. A news database search of his name and Commerce Park yields more than 250 articles.

Commerce Park's long-running saga had more twists and turns than a pretzel factory. It had more wrinkles than your average Shar-Pei puppy.

Dellinger covered most of them.

When Virginia passed a law that allowed localities to band together to develop huge industrial parks, Dellinger was on the case. When various governments purchased shares, he reported that.

When Salem turned up its nose at the venture, Dellinger wrote about it. When Wythe County pulled out and went on to develop the 1,200-acre Progress Park (which now has 10 tenants), he wrote about that, too.

He wrote about the need for roads, water and sewers on the site. Every time the federal government or state government announced it would pour more money into Commerce Park, Dellinger's story was in the paper the next day.

"The idea was that those large tracts of land would attract a big industry that none of those smaller localities could attract by themselves," Dellinger told me.

"I spent 10 years at the paper thinking something was going to happen â? I kept thinking that any time now [the first tenant] would pop up." To his core, Dellinger is the consummate optimist.

As you might imagine, he was anxious to learn the name of the new tenant, and how many hundreds of acres it would occupy and which big-name employer had been reeled in. Microsoft? Toyota? Boeing?

When I told him it was a hothouse farming operation on 18 acres, Dellinger sounded underwhelmed.

"That was unexpected," he said.

With a bit of luck, $800,000 in additional taxpayer investment and few years of operations, Red Sun Farms may one day occupy 50 acres in the massively empty Commerce Park complex. It may ultimately employ more than 300 people. It's kicking off with an 18-acre spread and 200 workers.

"Of all the industries over the years they would have liked to attract, they never mentioned one like that, at least while I was there," Dellinger said. "I thought it would be some kind of high-tech thing, or at least some kind of manufacturing facility."

Didn't we all?

Way back in 1996 or 1997, when organizers first conceived of New River Valley Commerce Park in Pulaski County, they aimed big.

Motorola had recently announced it would build a gigantic computer chip-manufacturing plant in Goochland County that could employ 5,000 high-tech workers. And that left politicians and economic developers across the commonwealth drooling with envy.

Though Motorola later ditched its plans, leaders in this region were anxious to jump on the big-time industrial development bandwagon. All that was required was 1,000 or so acres of land and more than $7 million for improvements in roads and utilities infrastructure.

But the truth is, "build it and they will come" isn't necessarily always a great strategy. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. The Taubman Museum of Art comes to mind.

"It seemed like a great idea, on paper," Dellinger offered.

So did Ford's Edsel - you know?

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