Staunton to offer creative incentive packages

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In today’s economy, performance counts — even for cities. For this reason, Staunton economic development officials made it a point this year to take an innovative approach when competing with nine other communities for a renewal of its enterprise zone designation.

The city’s strategy for getting the designation — which included offering businesses 10 “forward-thinking” incentive packages — obviously worked. Staunton was one of four communities chosen in early December as a new Virginia Enterprise Zone. The other three newly named to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development-administered program are Prince George County, Portsmouth and Southampton County/Franklin.

The designation, which allows economic development authorities to provide businesses with matching state grants, lasts for 10 years but includes two five-year renewal options. Staunton previously had a 20-year designation.

“We just think that in the current economic environment a one-size-fits-all approach to recruiting companies and helping companies expand is not going to cut it,” says Amanda Glover, Staunton’s assistant director for economic development and Staunton’s enterprise zone administrator. “We’ve always tried to work with companies to figure out what they really need, but this is the first time we’ve actually put it down on paper.”

Among the new offerings is a Creative Class/Entrepreneurship incentive. It provides emerging and startup businesses with a number of options, including an interest rate buy-down on a startup or expansion loan, a refund of broadband connection fees and a cultural amenity package that includes free tickets to Staunton’s local arts and theater destinations. A Destination Retail incentive provides companies that locate downtown with a 50 percent reimbursement of their marketing expenses up to $5,000 and a free two-year membership in the Staunton Downtown Development Authority.

Glover says the state is now looking closely at the performance of its enterprise zone communities as it plans to reduce the total number of designations. In 2009, there were 57 enterprise zone communities, but that number will drop by one annually until reaching a total of just 30 zones.

“If we don’t have companies locating here, if we’re not doing a good job of marketing the zone or having companies or developers take advantage of the state grants, then they’re not going to keep us in the program,” Glover explains. “So you constantly have to be looking at your zone, modifying it, modifying your incentives and trying to give companies what they need. And that will be even more necessary in the future.”

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