Cracker drives property interest

PARKERSBURG – Interest in property in the area has increased as plans for an ethane cracker plant move forward, and some believe it’s only the beginning.

“It’s an exciting time,” said Cam Huffman, president and CEO of the Area Roundtable, an economic development organization.

Appalachian Shale Cracker Enterprise LLC, also known as A.S.C.E.N.T., is exploring the construction of a petrochemical complex consisting of a cracker facility, three polyethylene plants and related infrastructure at the current site of SABIC Innovative Plastics in Washington, W.Va. The cracker plant would convert ethane, a natural gas byproduct, into ethylene, a widely used component in the plastics industry.

The project has yet to be given the final green light, but after the company spent nearly $11 million acquiring the land and an environmental remediation plan was accepted by state regulators, many feel the momentum is too great to stop.

“I think it’s too far along now not to become a reality,” said Holmes R. “Butch” Shaver, director of commercial and industrial sales and leasing for Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Real Estate Center in Parkersburg.

Shaver said he’s seen a significant increase in activity and interest in commercial and residential real estate that can be traced back to the possibility of the cracker plant and the growing oil and natural gas exploration activity in the region associated with the Marcellus and Utica shale formations.

“I’m starting to experience inquiries from ancillary companies that want to locate here because of” the cracker, Shaver said. “On the residential side, we’ve had some young people moving back.”

Huffman said his office is seeing interest in industrial and commercial properties for which it’s seeking tenants, although many parties are waiting to see if the cracker is definitely coming before they take action.

“It’s still encouraging to be this far down the road and still getting interest,” he said.

One property getting a lot of attention is the former Coldwater Creek distribution center and outlet store at the Parkersburg Business Park off Interstate 77. The facility employed 300 people and closed earlier this year after the company filed for bankruptcy.

At nearly 1 million square feet, the building is larger than what oil and gas companies might normally seek, but its proximity to the hoped-for cracker plant makes it appealing to them as well as others, Huffman said.

“We’ve had a lot of interest, not just oil and gas related,” he said.

Some realtors who deal more with residential properties said they have yet to see a big jump, but they’re optimistic that it’s coming.

“What I see is more people wanting rental property,” said Valerie Young, owner of Valerie Young Realtors in Vienna. “I don’t see a big increase in sales, honestly.”

Young said many people coming into the area for the oil and gas industry are only doing so temporarily at this point. She’s gotten some calls from people inquiring if the owners of homes for sale would be interested in renting them for a year.

Sherry Jackson, co-owner of Jackson Realty in Mineral Wells, said she believes some people are holding property they might otherwise sell in hopes that they’ll make more money when the cracker plant gets at the final go-ahead.

“There’s just not the inventory we’re used to seeing,” she said.

Jean Grapes, owner/broker with South Parkersburg Realty, said she’s seen an uptick in interest in rentals and property people “think they can do something with” but not a big push – yet.

“We’re anticipating that this will improve the market,” Grapes said. “Jobs are the answer in real estate. Jobs are what make the economy go.”

There’s also optimism that the cracker plant, if it becomes a reality, will boost construction of new homes, said Trish McKay, executive officer for the Home Builders Association of the Mid-Ohio Valley.

“It’s always our high hope that it will bring people to the area, jobs to the area, and they’re going to need homes,” she said.