Eastern Panhandle county aspires to be center of development

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. — Daryl Cowles wears two hats.

He’s a state delegate representing parts of Morgan and Hampshire County. And since October, he’s been director of the Morgan County Economic Development Authority.

Right now, he’s feeling pretty good about the second hat.

Outside his office, high on a hill in Berkeley Springs, there’s a hive of activity.

The old War Memorial Hospital, which for many years before that was The Pines Crippled Children’s clinic, is being transformed into The Pines Opportunity Center.

Inside will be a Procter & Gamble training lab — the first aspect of P&G to officially open in the Eastern Panhandle — plus the Morgan County center for Blue Ridge Community and Technical College.

Those are two important anchors, but the space will also be home to the Morgan County Health Department, Morgan County 911, an Emergency Management and Homeland Security office and more.

“It’s looking like quite the tech park,” Cowles said while serving as a tour guide to the development this week.

Morgan County, particularly Berkeley Springs, benefits from its reputation as a tourism destination, where visitors might stay at a local bed and breakfast, bathe in the springs that provide the name for the county seat and dine on delicious local cuisine.

But while the rest of the Eastern Panhandle has gained a go-go-go reputation for growth over the past several decades, Cowles is well aware that his county has remained comparatively rural.

Berkeley County, just to the east and on with tremendous access via Interstate 81, stands at 110,000 people. Jefferson County, farther to the east, is at 55,000.

Morgan County remains at 17,000, with its growth a bit flat compared to the others.

Cowles sees potential for growth, building not only on the already-strong tourism base, but also on improved infrastructure that includes the possibility of increased access to a supply of natural gas and roads projects that are part of Gov. Jim Jusice’s highways plan.

Put everything together, Cowles said, and about $89.6 million in potential infrastructure investments are possible for Morgan County in the short term, plus an additional $46 million in possible road improvements.

Cowles keeps a whiteboard with the possibilities spelled out with the scrawl of a fresh marker.

“We have a lot happening for us right now. Put it all together, and it’s a pretty big deal for us,”┬ásaid Cowles, who became the county’s development director in October after working for many years with his father and brother at Cowles & Sons Construction.

The most obvious progress is at the Pines Opportunity Center. That project became a possibility when War Memorial Hospital moved to a new, $30 million facility about five years ago.

Its old property, dating back to the 1930s, became available for development. The campus is owned by Morgan County, which is putting about $1.5 million in investment into improvements to the roof, windows and facade.

Procter & Gamble has put an additional $1 million into preparation of its development center, where 40 to 50 employees are likely to work.

“Those are big developments here in Berkeley Springs and in Morgan County,” Cowles said.

He added, “It’s primed to address workforce issues and access to higher education.”

Construction including fresh front steps is going on right now at the Pines Opportunity Center.

“It’s always a work in progress. The activity up there is incredible right now. I think maybe by August it will be wrapped up,” Cowles said.

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