About one year ago, members of Steubenville Council and the Jefferson County commissioners reached a tentative agreement to abolish the city's inactive port authority and create a new, nine-member county port authority.
The goal at the time was see the Community Improvement Corp. of Jefferson County and the public-private Progress Alliance transition into the new port authority and for the port authority to be become the economic development tool of the county.
It was hoped at the time the transition would be smooth and orderly, but those hopes took a hit Thursday when members of the Community Improvement Corp. of Jefferson County and Progress Alliance became the targets of open criticism during the meeting of the Jefferson County commissioners.
For 16 years, economic development in the county has been under the umbrella of Progress Alliance, a public-private partnership that is operated by the CIC. Its successes have been many, from the establishment of the Wal-Mart Distribution Center on state Route 43 just north of Wintersville to the opening of H&H Screen Printing on Lovers Lane in Steubenville earlier this year.
Time is clearly running out on the organization, however. Already, the county commissioners have pledged $100,000 to the port authority for 2013 - $25,000 more than they contributed to the CIC this year. The loss of the county money, the decisions of Wintersville and Steubenville to not contribute and private investors questioning their involvement have left officials with few options.
Officials with Progress Alliance and the CIC have been seeking answers about what their role would be in the transition to the port authority and if any public funding will be available to them. It was against that backdrop that several members of the CIC attended Thursday's meeting, looking for a definitive answer about what, if any, future funding from the county could be expected.
What they heard was Commissioner Thomas Graham reading from a prepared statement in which he delivered a litany of criticisms and allegations that there had been "unethical decisions" made by Progress Alliance. The commissioner was especially critical of Jim Emmerling, a CIC board member and owner of EM Media who conducted media campaigns on behalf of the CIC.
Commissioner Tom Gentile expressed his concern that the organization had held golf tournaments and conducted a monthly breakfast series, endeavors Gentile said were not directly tied to economic development.
Commissioner Dave Maple, meanwhile, said that the commissioners have - and will continue to be - committed to economic development, pointing out that the county's original $50,000 yearly contribution to Progress Alliance had been increased to $75,000, and reminding those in attendance that the commissioners had pledged $100,000 to the port authority.
By the time Bob Chapman, the CIC chairman had the opportunity to speak, it was clear to him that the only move left for his organization was to meet in January and implement an exit strategy. That plan will include the transition of pending development projects to the port authority, turning over management of the Jefferson County Industrial Park, the management of the county's revolving loan fund, handling of the annual meetings of the Tax Incentive Review Council and the closing of the Progress Alliance office.
The public fighting could not come at a worse time - the area's economy is growing, and all signs indicate it will continue to expand for the foreseeable future, thanks in large part to the expansion of the oil and gas industry. For example, through the end of November, the 25-county Appalachian Partnership for Economic Growth has seen investments totaling $1.8 billion and the creation of 1,200 jobs.
Ten of those projects landed in Jefferson County, which speaks to the efforts of Progress Alliance and its outgoing director, Ed Looman, who is leaving for a post with the APEG.
We want that expansion to continue, but for that to happen our region needs to put its best face forward and show potential investors that elected officials and business leaders are willing to put aside their differences and work together for the good of the county's residents. Political grandstanding does nothing to help those efforts.