Steubenville City Council looking for more information

NO DECISION -- Members of Steubenville City Council on Tuesday said they wanted more information before they make a decision about plans for the marina. -- Linda Harris

STEUBENVILLE — A contentious recreation committee meeting ended Tuesday with council members calling for more information before they decide what to do with a $100,000 state capital fund grant that was awarded for a marina upgrade in 2018.

The meeting lasted several minutes beyond the 45 that had been allotted for it, with tempers flaring as members debated whether the money would be better spent addressing needs at one of the city’s other park sites. At one point Mayor Jerry Barilla threatened to have several spectators removed to maintain order — ironically, the disruption came when 6th Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna, who favors redirecting the grant to other recreation needs, had the floor. Villamagna himself was escorted from council last year after repeatedly interrupting Barilla when he had the floor.

City officials had applied for the grant at a time when Steubenville’s fiscal outlook showed signs of improving, and the $180,000-plus local match seemed doable. Now, however, council is struggling to address the city’s crumbling infrastructure, as well as significant outlays for court security upgrades, enhanced municipal building security, vacant and dilapidated properties, and park and playground maintenance, including costly repairs to an historic sandstone bridge at Beatty Park.

Villamagna maintains it would be a mistake for the city to try to update the marina when it already has 13 parks and play sites it doesn’t have the manpower or funding to properly maintain, and wants council to ask the state to consider repurposing the grant so it can be used for other recreational needs.

“It’s ridiculous that we’ve let our other parks go, but we’re talking about putting millions of dollars into the marina,” he said after the meeting. “And it’s under water as we speak.

“Where is the money going to come from?”

Villamagna on several occasions has alluded to a passage in the comprehensive plan in which consultants had recommended waiting until the “latter phases of revitalization” to develop green spaces and recreational opportunities in the “narrow strip of land” fronting the river between state Route 7 and the Ohio River “due to limited developable land and opportunities.”

But Councilwoman at large Kimberly Hahn, who chairs council’s recreation committee, insists those concerns referenced economic development opportunities, not land.

“It’s the same thing,” Villamagna replied.

Hahn, though, disagreed, saying, the consultants who drafted the $75,000 comprehensive plan keyed on “seven big ideas” — the need to improve the city’s image by enhancing waterways and the riverfront as well as key gateways and welcoming entrances; promoting healthier lifestyles, including the establishment of trails; developing biking-walking trails to provide easier access to downtown residents; celebrating Steubenville’s heritage; enhancing community connectivity and mobility through alternative transportation; leveraging Steubenville’s natural resources and environmental assets; and promoting public-private partnerships

“Every one of the seven big ideas in the comprehensive plan applies to the marina,” Hahn said, pointing out the consultants also referenced the waterfront and bridges as great assets, included the 11.14 acre marina property in a list of existing parks and pointed out that an interconnected parks and trial system improves recreation opportunities.

“When we got the marina property, we signed on to (developing) recreation or we lose the property,” she said, noting it has “great potential” to improve the quality of life in the Steubenville area.

“It could have a lasting positive impact on the community,” she said, conceding, though, that “it’s not without challenges.”

Hahn also told council she’d confirmed the Ohio Department of Natural Resources already has funding earmarked for boat launches and a temporary dock at the marina.

“I would say the state of Ohio believes in this project,” she said. “What we need to do is prove we don’t just want to take other people’s money to do it.”

City Engineer Mike Dolak told council repurposing the grant for another marina project might be problematic, saying they’d have to convince the state to change the name in the bill.

“If you keep the money at the marina, I would suggest using it for the water line,” he said. “Of course, you guys can do what you want, but I would highly recommend you keep it as a water line if (the funding) is kept at the marina.”

Hahn, though, insisted the grant title made no mention of “water line.” She said state Rep. Jack Cera, D-Bellaire, told her he didn’t have the time to work on repurposing the grant money before the end of the budget year, though Villamagna said he’d talked with Cera as well as state Sen. Frank Hoagland, R-Mingo Junction, “and they both said it could be done.”

Barilla, meanwhile, pointed out the focus in recent days seemed to have shifted away from the marina to a walking-biking trail extending from the Market Street bridge northward to Alikanna.

Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District Watershed Coordinator Aaron Dodds, who had suggested leveraging the grant money as a local match for a $300,000 Clean Ohio Greenspace grant, said the marina was a key piece of his plan.

“The marina actually anchors the whole riverfront concept plan,” Dodds said. “It isn’t a ‘trail’ plan.”

“My suggestion is you have a window of opportunity,” Dodds added. “Slow it down, bring in people who can answer your questions.”

Third Ward Councilman Eric Timmons questioned whether the $100,000 grant could be used to leverage additional grant funding through Clean Ohio, saying it was his understanding that money can only be used for property acquisition.

“But there’s something called ‘third-party applications’ that might apply,” Dolak replied, adding that a greenspace grant would forever preclude economic development at the marina.

“The $100,000 designated for the marina needs to be used at the marina,” Hahn reiterated, adding council “would need to understand what a third-party application is” before making a decision.

Dolak said the third-party would have to be a government entity, such as Jefferson County, the soil and water conservation district or the port authority, “but before you do anything, there needs to be a plan. No matter what you do, there has to be a pan.”

A frustrated 5th Ward Councilman Willie Paul said he was “tired of the whole thing,” saying they should proceed with the original plan to use the money to extend the water line. “Go as far as $100,000 takes it,” he said.

Second Ward Councilman Craig Petrella pointed out there are outside concerns willing to provide funding for marina development. He said he’d like input from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“There’s funding out there for boat ramps and portable docks,” he said. “So there are people out there interested in revitalizing the marina. I think we should pursue some of the opportunities that are available, see where it goes. It seems like we have (some) time to explore it. I think we should. There are people out there willing to help.”

First Ward Councilman Gerald DiLoreto said he, too, is frustrated by the ongoing debate, and asked Parks and Recreation Director Lori Featherolf if she had the staffing to maintain the marina if improvements are made.

“No,” Featherolf replied.

“There you go,” DiLoreto said.

Fourth Ward Councilman Scott Dressel said the way he sees it, the city always will have maintenance issues “but our future is forever, and if we want a better future and to be more attractive to those moving to the area, we need to plan and develop with that in mind.”

“Our waterfront, up until recently has always been heavy industrial,” he added. “We now have the opportunity to start development and increase recreational utilization across the entire riverfront of the city. This is and would be an attractive asset to anyone moving here as it is in thousands of cities across America and the world.

“We can create a better future, clean up the marina and make it more usable, more used, attracting more people to Steubenville, Jefferson County and Ohio,” Dressel added. “And, we can keep up the parks we have and work on them as well. We need to start this today — we are in a growth period, let’s harness that growth and steer it toward greater growth.

Villamagna insisted the city can’t afford to take on the expense.

“Overall, you’ll probably have $13 million or $14 million” invested in marina upgrades, he said. “We can’t afford it.”

Villamagna bristled when Hahn told him he could address additional concerns during council’s regular meeting,

“You will, I know you will,” she replied. “I’m not giving you permission.”

Council’s safety committee also met, discussing problems with trucks using jake brakes within city limits. The practice is prohibited by code. More and bigger signs will be posted warning drivers the practice is not allowed, and police will run radar along state Route 7 as a deterrent.

During the regular council meeting, council was told the Harmonium Project wholeheartedly supports marina development.

“We cannot revitalize this city without dreams,” members said in a letter submitted to council. “Dreams are what allow us to look at our broken buildings and see them restored; to look at our empty streets and see them full. Dreams lead to plans, plans lead to action and action leads to results. And there is one beautiful dream that has turned into one brilliant plan promising many, marvelous results: The Riverfront Development Concept Plan. As an organization dreaming of the revitalization of downtown Steubenville, we would be fools not to add our voice to the growing cry of the people — that we turn this plan into action.”

Steubenville is missing out on development opportunities because, “up to now, we haven’t dared to dream,” they said.

Hahn, meanwhile, told council she was organizing a Friends of the Marina committee. The first meeting of the marina group will be at 7 p.m. June 27 at the Belleview Park Clubhouse.

“I hope within two weeks of that to have a Friends of Beatty Park committee,” she added.

Featherolf said the goal will be to bring like-minded people together to “develop objectives and formulate a vision of what the future of the Steubenville marina can be.”

“I can see potential in the marina.” Featherolf said. “However, funding is always going to be one of our biggest obstacles. With that being said, the goal of this group is to develop an idea of what can be realistically done with our existing property. This will be a big task and will take years to complete so this (is just) the first step in the process.”

About 30 people packed the public gallery for the discussion.