YORK — The success and disappointment of York County’s economic development program are among the highlights of the nearly 29-year career of county official James W. “Jim” Noel Jr., who is retiring this week.
Noel, whose last day of work as the county’s director of economic development will be Friday, explained that the biggest change in the past three decades “has been the proliferation of retail development.” And that’s where the successes and failures came from.
Until the mid-1990s, York County’s tax base consisted primarily of residential properties. Then came the increase in commercial and retail components. Previously, York had seen the development of two large business entities in the mid-1950s. The gasoline refinery came in 1956, the power station was developed in 1957 “and the county spoiled itself with two big taxpayers.” Employment was high and there was little demand on county services,” Noel said.
“When I came to York County in 1993, there were no big box stores,” Noel explained. “Then Super Kmart opened in Kiln Creek and that was a big deal. It was followed a few years later by Walmart stores in Kiln Creek and Lightfoot.
At the time the Lightfoot Walmart store was built, adjacent James City County was not interested in big box stores. “Until Walmart, there was literally nothing up there,” he said. “Then the developers saw the opportunity and Walmart spawned Home Depot and Ukrop Grocery, then Sentara Hospital.”
Around the same time, “we were contacted by a consultant working with the Great Wolf Lodge,” Noel continued, “and it worked. They built, and the initial investment was $100 million. today, they are one of the largest taxpayers in the county.
The downside, however, Noel said, was the failure of the property in the northern part of the county that eventually became the Marquis shopping complex. “The land was owned by Busch Properties of Anheuser-Busch and was surplus when they purchased Water Country.
“For years and years, we’ve talked with every major retail development,” he said. “However, we were ahead of the demographic curve [in that area] although transportation was good with Interstate 64.”
Premier Properties, “a young company ready to take more risks”, arrived and the time seemed right. “They felt the risk was to blame and we were hoping it would come out of the ground before New Town, but then came the recession and the developer went bankrupt.”
Everyone hoped the Marquis would be good, but unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way,” Noel said. Two of the top five department stores have closed: JCPenney closed in April 2015 and Dick’s Sporting Goods last January.
Moreover, another economic development, under the auspices of Noel, did not materialize. “When I arrived in York there had been efforts to get the salvage yards on US 17 [George Washington Memorial Highway] revamped,” he explained.
“During those go-go years and into the early 2000s, economically things were going well. I made several runs on the property to redevelop it, but none were successful.
For years, Yorktown’s waterfront was the property and historic ground of Greek immigrants Nick and Mary Mathews, owners of the nationally acclaimed Nick’s Seafood Pavilion restaurant. Then, “chance events occurred that made the redevelopment of the waterfront possible,” Noel said.
The Mathews family owned the property that became the River Walk. Nick died in 1983, and when Mary died in 1998, most of the property, including the restaurant, was bequeathed to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, a state agency that operates historic attractions in Jamestown and Yorktown on the edge of the battlefield.
“We finally approached [the foundation] and they were interested in selling,” Noel said.
Yorktown’s waterfront redevelopment has suddenly gone from “dream status” to a potential reality. Part of the necessary funding came when the General Assembly authorized the county to raise its council tax.
“Plans had been worked on for several years. The contribution of the citizens was solicited and [local architect] Carlton Abbott had developed some preliminary ideas. I’m proud of the role I played in the ultimate development of Yorktown River Walk, but it was truly a team effort with county management and the Board of Supervisors committed to it.
Noel’s role was to be part of the team that spoke about the project to groups such as the Lion’s Club and Kiwanis, to gain public support.
There were three distinct parts to the message: First, Yorktown was an important place in American history. Second, Yorktown was an important part of the overall tourism strategy – making Yorktown more interesting and adding to hotel nights and third, since the county had no downtown, Yorktown could be a place enjoyed by locals as well as by tourists.
River Walk opened on Memorial Day 2005 and “I’m proud of the wonderful businesses that are there now, a great mix for tourists and locals alike,” Noel said. “I know it didn’t happen overnight. There’s been some back and forth, but I’m thrilled with what we have now.
A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Noel, 66, plans to start his own company LCC to handle economic development consultancy work and organizational management for public groups. However, leaving York County is not easy.
Over the years, Noel’s work with the county has provided “many, many benefits and I have had many positive things including working with York County’s exciting business community – business partners, bankers , commercial real estate real estate professions – have all been fantastic to work with and our efforts have been collaborative.
York County Administrator Neil Morgan said, “The best word to describe Noel is entrepreneur. Economic development is a little different from any other local government effort. It contains an element of risk taking. There are many ad hoc situations that require innovative action. It’s Jim Noel.
“He can also be described as the county’s business information broker. If you want to know what is going on there or what are they trying to do? So ask Jim!
With Noel’s departure, Morgan decided to re-examine the position and rebrand it to include tourism, “since economic development and tourism are so interdependent,” Morgan said. From next week, current Tourism Director Kristi Olsen will take the helm as Acting Director of the new Economic Development and Tourism Department, which will also include Matt Johnson, Economic Development Specialist and Deputy Director.
As for Noel, he will fondly remember the past three decades.
“I have been blessed in my work in York County, a quality community that has provided wonderful family experiences,” he said. “I love the history and to be able to say that I walked the same streets as Washington and Lafayette still tickles me today.”
Wilford Kale, [email protected]