It's a double-edged sword for Marty Marasco: He is trying to attract new businesses and needed jobs to Blair County, but with the county's business parks nearly full, he doesn't have any room for them.
Marasco, president and CEO of the Altoona-Blair County Development Corp., whose role is to attract new businesses and jobs to the county, admits a lack of space has cost Blair County some opportunities.
"We have had situations where we were not even considered. With one client, we weren't considered because they needed 52 acres of shovel-ready property," Marasco said. "With another company, we got down to the final two, but because we didn't have a big enough site, we didn't get it. It was a substantial client."
Available ground is precious at the county's eight business sites.
About 25 acres remain available for development at the DeGol Industrial Center - the former Samuel Rea Car Shops property in Hollidaysburg - but that land would require some additional access improvements, electric and gas lines, Marasco said.
"We are reviewing a plan to do that," Marasco said.
Blair County Development Corp. III, a division of ABCD Corp., owns the property.
"We have a master lease with D Holdings Inc., a division of the DeGol Organization. DeGol is the developer of the property," Marasco said.
A 12-acre tract remains undeveloped at the Robert C. Jubelirer Business Park in Snyder Township.
However, Bardon LLC, a partnership comprised of Barry Smith, president and CEO of Smith Transport Inc., and Donald Devorris, chairman of the board of The Blair Companies, owns that tract and is working on a project, Marasco said.
About 15 or 16 acres are undeveloped at the Walter Business Park in Greenfield Township - home to the Sheetz Distribution Center and Sheetz Bros. Kitchen - but that land is committed to Sheetz for future Sheetz projects, Marasco said.
The I-99 Enterprise Campus in Antis Township, which is home to Gardner Denver, contains three additional sites - two are under option and the third was sold. ABCD Corp. is in negotiations to reacquire that tract of land from the company that bought it but decided to build elsewhere.
"There are clients interested in the property, but there are no lots available. It is all spoken for," Marasco said.
The Tyrone Industrial Park has about 13 acres available but they are owned by Dixon Tool & Die. The company has a potential buyer for 4 acres of the land.
Two acres of land remain at the South Altoona Business Park, which houses the Devorris Center for Business Development, home to ABCD Corp., the Blair County Chamber of Commerce and others.
ABCD Corp. has plans to use that tract to expand the building, Marasco said.
Searching for options
The lack of space creates a dilemma for ABCD Corp.
"There is very little acreage available, and [what is available] is small parcels. If a client wants to expand or wants to come here, the most we can offer is 5 acres. Some clients are looking for 25 to 100 acres. We do not have the land available to accommodate them," Marasco said. "In today's world, you need shovel-ready sites so all they need is a building permit. That is the ideal situation."
ABCD Corp. has been looking up and down the I-99 corridor for possible sites.
"We are evaluating numerous properties, but you get into constraints like steep slopes, wetlands, agricultural security areas and archaeological issues. You look at the constraints and you are very limited at what and where you can develop," Marasco said.
ABCD Corp. is constantly working with development officials in Bedford and Centre counties through the I-99 Corridor Alliance - a consortium of Bedford County Economic Development Association, ABCD Corp., Centre County Chamber of Business and Industry and Penn State.
"We have discussions on an ongoing basis. Through the I-99 Corridor Alliance, we do joint marketing and go to trade shows together," Marasco said. "If people would locate there, it would still benefit us. If a group presents itself we would work with both of them to put our best foot forward to attract a company. We look at it as a regional approach."
Marasco said site selection is a process of elimination.
"We work with site selection consultants. They send you an RFP [request for proposals], and you respond to that. Companies send out RFPs looking for information about the communities. We go to shows and various conferences with site selection consultants, two or three a year. We bring site selection consultants into the area to show them what is available," Marasco said. "We also get direct inquiries from local companies that are interested in expanding their operations."
One step at a time
Meanwhile in 2010, ABCD Corp. received a $115,500 Business in Our Sites grant to pay for engineering and geotechnical investigations for a site in close proximity to the Walter Business Park.
On occasion, ABCD Corp. is notified about available land.
"There are people who come to us with property that is available, and we look at it. We do several evaluations of potential developable areas," Marasco said. "We analyzed the [I-99] corridor in Blair County. There are a couple of sites we looked at, but the people are not interested in selling the property."
Marasco is hopeful at least part of the site near the Walter Business Park will be suitable for development.
"We have done a feasibility analysis. We are pursuing that project, but there are issues we have to overcome. The piece we would buy includes 140 acres, but only 70 to 75 [are] developable acres because of the constraints, especially wetlands. We need to make sure we can address any constraints," Marasco said.
ABCD Corp. hopes to move quickly if the land is deemed suitable for development. Marasco said they would like to aim for construction next spring or summer, providing they could get water, sewer, gas lines and electricity in place.
He noted that it is important to make sure land is economically feasible to develop before moving forward. ABCD Corp. enters into an "option to buy" agreement before deciding whether to purchase property.
"You can't just spend millions of dollars. You look at the price per acre of developable land. We need to be able to recover our investment," Marasco said.
ABCD Corp. also has had discussions with Norfolk Southern Corp. about 159 acres in the classification yards east of the railroad mainline between the Eighth Street Bridge in Juniata and the Lower Riggles Gap Road Bridge in Pinecroft.
"That is more of a heavy industrial area and not a place to put a technology company or office areas," Marasco said. "It is nice to be able to offer an array of sites such as heavy industrial, light industrial, technology and mixed use with rail service. Rail service is at a premium in this area."
Logan Town Centre
Another property that could possibly be developed is a tract of land behind Logan Town Centre in Logan Township.
When developer Greg Morris announced plans for Logan Town Centre in January 2000, he said a later phase of the project called for a modern business park behind the stores.
Morris has conceptual drawings that show plans for a state building and a regional hospital to be part of the approximately 190-acre tract.
"We had looked at putting in a new PennDOT building, a state-of-the-art green building," Morris said. "It could have been used for a regional hospital campus. That is still not an impossibility. Maybe hospitals from Pittsburgh and Harrisburg would be interested to come in and compete with Altoona Regional."
Jerry Murray, Altoona Regional president/CEO, said late last week that as hospitals consolidate and develop affiliations and with a declining inpatient population, the area could not support another hospital.
He said a year after Altoona Hospital and Bon Secours Holy Family Hospital merged in 2004, there was some thought at that time of building a new facility.
"We looked around, but it didn't make any sense to build a new hospital.We looked at the price and it could have approached a half billion dollars," Murray said. "We realized the community could not afford that."
Retired PennDOT employees Asbury Lee and Ed Stoltz remember discussions about the PennDOT building possibility.
"I do remember someone put forth that idea, but the project at Logan Town Centre never saw the light of day with PennDOT," said Lee, who retired as PennDOT District 9 spokesman in 2003.
"It was a proposal, but there was never a firm plan. There was some consideration. It was one of the sites that was talked about," said Stoltz, a design services engineer who retired in April.
Despite the need to deal with some wetlands issues, Morris said he envisioned the park as similar to the Ardie J. Dillen Industrial Park in Antis Township, home to companies such as New Pig Corp. and ORX.
"Are there streams and wetlands? Yes. You go around [avoid] the wetlands. There is a way to avoid the wetlands and build around them," Morris said. "The goal was to keep the woods and wetlands up there and have an attractive business park."
Dr. Carroll P. Osgood, part of Morris' investment group, and Frank Meloy, chairman of the Logan Township board of supervisors, liked the idea.
"I think the whole thing was a great idea. We thought the shopping center would do well and it has," Osgood said. "There are all kinds of things that could be developed there."
"I thought it was a great idea. It would have been a good location near I-99. It would have been a great site; it was a matter of putting in the infrastructure," Meloy said. "Putting in a business park would be a tremendous idea. Some of the residents were concerned that he would be putting in heavy industry, but that was not considered."
Morris said the project never came to fruition for a variety of reasons, including a decision not to build what was called an "alternate Route 36," which would run behind Logan Town Centre and parallel I-99 between the Frankstown Road and 17th Street interchanges of the highway. He said that road would have been a perfect access road for the business park.
The proposed highway also would have made it easier for trucks to pass through Altoona before heading up the present Route 36 to points north of the city.
Lee said there was a plan to go around Logan Town Centre and connect to 17th Street, go to 12th Avenue and then connect onto Route 36 and go up the Buckhorn. He said that would have eliminated the problem of the low underpass by the UVA Club.
"It was basically a drawing on paper, and it went nowhere," said PennDOT District Executive Thomas Prestash, who was portfolio manager in 2000. "No study was ever done, but there was talk."
The bankruptcy factor
Morris also said he would have needed a development company to actually develop the business park. He estimated the costs to move the dirt, build the pads for the buildings and run utilities could cost between $15 million and $20 million.
Today, the parcel known as "Phase II 17th Street" is included in Morris' bankruptcy proceedings, and the fate of the tract of land may be determined this month or next.
Morris said there is interest in the property.
"A lot of people have inquired about the property. With I-99 getting bigger, it could become an attractive property for a large company," Morris said. "We have been approached by housing developers and business park people. There is so much potential."
If the federal judge overseeing the bankruptcy proceedings approves sale of the property, it will be up to the new owner to decide whether to proceed with a project.
"The township cooperated to make it a KOZ [Keystone Opportunity Zone, which provides tax breaks for new businesses]. It is zoned appropriately. There is infrastructure going on now. Sewer lines are going in at Sylvan East (located above the site); they could piggyback into it," Meloy said. "I think it would be an excellent idea."
Eye on the future
Meanwhile, attempts to find developable land - which is important to the future of Blair County and would add to the tax base - will continue.
"We have companies here who may want to grow and expand. We want to give them options if they can't grow on site. We want to continue to help local companies and offer suitable sites to potential clients from outside the area that are looking," Marasco said. "It is critical to have shovel-ready sites in place if you are going to be competitive."