STEUBENVILLE - Lately Ed Looman's phone is ringing off the hook and that, he said, is a good thing. A very good thing.
Looman, executive director of Progress Alliance, said it means potential investors want to find out more about Jefferson County, its business climate and see what's available in terms of buildings and properties.
"We tracked it from the afternoon of Nov. 17 to the end of business on the 21st and we had nine new inquiries," Looman said. "Is that a lot? Yes, it is."
And in the six weeks since, he said they've picked up more.
Since May, in fact, Looman said they've had discussions with dozens of companies.
"Before we had inquiries, but it wasn't like this," he said. "It's not like interest was nonexistent before, but it wasn't nearly as active as this."
The difference maker is the vast Marcellus and Utica shale resources underlying Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Hailed as the key to America's energy independence, it's bringing both energy companies and the companies that do business with them to the Ohio Valley, most of them looking to establish a brick-and-mortar presence.
Looman said potential investors are using the "Sites and Buildings" tool on the Progress Alliance website to narrow their list of must-see properties before they even arrive in Jefferson County. The listings, compiled by Progress Alliance Small Business Coordinator Donna Hrezo, include details like where it's located, the square footage, purchase or lease information and even a picture.
He said there are nearly 150 properties currently listed on the website.
"Looking at the nature of the inquiries on a percentage basis, about 75 percent of the companies contacting us are extremely interested in being in this part of the state. They want to do business somewhere in eastern Ohio as this whole shale business plays out," Looman said, adding that so-called "midstream" companies that support the drilling side of the business are among the most active.
"The requests we're getting run the gamut from large chunks of acreage down to a couple hundred square feet of office space. And you can add to that the inquiries being made directly to our local landowners, they're getting calls above and beyond the calls we're receiving in our office."
Looman said the next step is to seal the deal with one or more of the companies they've been working with.
"We start the process with a laundry list of potential sites and/or buildings, and we've been working our way through the list," he said. "We're at the point with some of the companies where they're negotiating with the building owner or the land owners - we're really close to having several of those wrapped up."
He said until the contracts are signed there are no guarantees, however.
"A case in point, we've been working with a company. We thought we had a deal done with them. They had a memorandum of understanding to lease property in the southern part of the county," Looman said. "It appeared to be a done deal, but their plans changed and they wanted to see more property, so we had to go back and re-start the search. A few other companies we've shown to are interested in particular pieces. They're trying to decide which site will work best for them."
But Looman said the prospect buzz "just lends credibility to all of the reports, all the things we've read and heard, about what the oil and gas experience could mean to our county and the counties around us."
"Part of my job is to be optimistic," he said. "But what it tells me is that if this plays out the way it appears to be headed, our future is looking pretty bright. Probably the most encouraging thing is the companies we've talked to have basically said the same thing - they want to support the local business community once they're here and they want to hire local workers. We're looking at all sorts of opportunities that could be coming this way."