Steubenville Council faces questions about riverfront development

STEUBENVILLE — Even Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District Watershed Coordinator Aaron Dodds doesn’t think spending the $100,000 state capital fund grant the city received for a water line extension should actually be spent extending water to the marina and building restrooms.

Dodds, JSWCD watershed coordinator, believes there are other funding opportunities the city could tap into down the road for that if and when council wants to pursue it.

Instead, Dodds, speaking on behalf of various “public/private entities” interested in seeing the waterfront developed, suggested council consider using the $100,000 the state earmarked for the marina improvements to leverage another $300,000 in grant money — giving the city $400,000, or four-times the spending power of the original grant. The city could spend all of it, Dodds said, or opt to recycle that original $100,000 grant as the local match for more grants.

Dodds contends the plan would give the city the funds it needs to develop a biking-walking trail from the Market Street Bridge northward past the marina to Alikanna. That’s important, he said, because the 3,700-mile Great American Rail Trail from Washington, D.C., to Seattle is slated to pass through the Northern Panhandle, cut across the Market Street Bridge and then cross Jefferson County, following the U.S. Route 22 corridor to Jewett, where it would connect with the Conotton Valley Trail.

Studies across the nation have shown biking-hiking trails — in particular, regional and/or national trails, like the Great American Rail Trail — jump start economies, Dodds said.

• The 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail, for instance, attracts more than 2 million users a year who spend upwards of $160 million annually as they traverse the trail, which stretches across 14 states from Georgia to Maine.

• Studies by the Walton Family Foundation concluded bicycling had generated $137 million in economic benefits to Northwest Arkansas in 2017.

• A 2014 study by a New York university concluded roughly $253 million in sales, 3,440 jobs, $78 million in labor income and $28.5 million in taxes in the local economy each year were attributable to the 14-county Erie Canal Trailway.

• The Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, part of the Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition’s 1,500-miles-plus regional trail network vision, generates nearly $7 million a year in trail user spending, according to a 2017 study.

• The 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage Trail is said to generate in excess of $40 million annually in trail user spending, with trail-related businesses paying out nearly $8 million yearly in wages.

“They have the Ohio-Erie rail coalition going through downtown Akron,” Dodds said. “It was an economically deprived center. Once they installed the Ohio-Erie Canal trailway, businesses started building up along the corrdidor. Now it’s one of their hotspots.”

Dodds figures the same thing could happen in Steubenville.

“The proof is all around us,” he said. “If you’re looking at the trail to be a magic bullet that overnight will make Steubenville like 1940s Steubenville, no, that’s not going to happen — nothing economic development-wise is going to make that happen. But you have to move forward — this is a good way of shaking that rust belt stigma, by improving that greenspace and improving the quality of life.”

Dodds said Ohio Department of Natural Resources also is interested in helping fund construction of a new boat ramp at the marina, and he maintains granting agencies like Clean Ohio and Ohio Nature Works are predisposed to seeing a project like the riverfront trail happen, and said there are groups involved in the rails-to-trails movement willing to flex their lobbying muscle to help get the money to pay for it.

If it’s just a dream, Dodds insists, “It’s a dream that’s very realistic.”

“Mr. Villamagna (6th Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna) mentioned I came up with it,” Dodds adds. “I really didn’t. It came straight from the city’s comprehensive plan. I just stitched it together.”

The comprehensive plan, adopted in 2014, was considered the blueprint for the city’s future: Before making their recommendations, consultants looked at just about every aspect of life in Steubenville — how to achieve job diversity, remove barriers to employment and business development, retain the best and brightest, restore vibrancy to the downtown, build community pride and a sense of community, reverse declining property values and rental conversions; provide a greater housing mixture and price points; meet the needs of a growing senior population; add green space and beautify the city; create inviting gateways into the city and improve community health, including a system that encourages walking and biking.

At last week’s meeting, Villamagna reminded council the plan, which cost the city $75,000, 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.”

Villamagna said the riverfront area in question “is very narrow, and you have the railroad tracks” to contend with. The tracks are owned by Norfolk Southern and the company is very exacting in protecting its property rights, so in places city leaders say there may only be 10 feet or so of riverfront to work with.

He also has pointed out the city applied for the $100,000 capital fund grant when times were better, budget-wise: While Steubenville ended 2018 with a significant cash carryover, it also started the new year with massive, often unexpected spending needs: sinkholes, state-mandated court security upgrades, security upgrades for the municipal building receptionist, crumbling infrastructure, vacant and dilapidated properties, high weeds, the need for appropriate signage at Third and Market streets, as well as park and playground maintenance, including costly repairs to an historic sandstone bridge at Beatty Park.

Villamagna has called the riverfront development proposal “a nice plan, a nice dream,” but insists the $100,000 earmarked for marina improvements could be better spent now addressing other recreational needs, “and if we can’t get it (redirected), then we could put it into the marina.”

“I just think if we can petition our senator to change toe wording in the bill to allow it for recreation, I think we’d be better served spending it at LaBelle Park, Jim Woods Park and Beatty Park,” he said, adding the last thing the city needs is more recreational facilities it doesn’t have the manpower or money to take care of.

“I just don’t believe in starting all these projects, then creating new projects on top of them,” Villamagna said. “We don’t have that luxury. If we cannot use (the grant) for anything else, in my opinion it might be best to just (return it).

Privately, at least one city leader who didn’t want to be quoted also was skeptical of the riverfront development plan, suggesting merely getting access to the land needed for a walking-biking trail could prove insurmountable given the sheer number of property owners who’d have to sign off.

What council will decide to do, however, is anyone’s guess: Councilwoman at large Kimberly Hahn and 4th Ward Councilman Scott Dressel have made no secret of their support for using the $100,000 capital grant to leverage funding for riverfront development.

Prior to Dodds’ presentation Dressel used social media to float his vision for the marina — developing a terraced lock wall with concrete bleachers, widening the boat ramp to allow for double-launching with a flat, sloped area for kayak launching, with parking, electrical hookups for food trucks and, eventually, restrooms.

“We need to start somewhere or it will never get done,” he said at the time.

Hahn, chair of council’s recreation committee, is equally adamant. She’d initially wanted to preserve the $100,000 grant to extend the water line and add restrooms at the marina, but withdrew her support when it became apparent the city didn’t have the additional $190,000 needed to complete the project.

At last weeks’s meeting, Second Ward Councilman Craig Petrella admitted he likes the idea of leveraging the grant to get more grant money, though he stopped short of saying he would support development of the recreation trails.

But 5th Ward Councilman Willie Paul sees too many spending needs and not enough money to accomplish them, so redirecting the state grant money into more general uses appeals to him.

“Just one idea,” Paul wrote Monday. “Our entrances to our paris are deplorable. Drive into Belleivew Park and look at the landscaping … weeds (and) bushes need trimmed and a flagpole would be nice to honor our country.”

And, 1st Ward Councilman Gerald DiLoretto is adamant it makes no sense to develop another recreation area, given the city’s deteriorating infrastructure.

“We don’t have the money to take care of the marina, we don’t have the manpower to maintain marina,” DiLoretto said. “We’re already going to have to (reduce) the number of parks we have — so why would we take on another one when we can’t take care of the ones we have?

That leaves 3rd Ward Councilman Eric Timmons as the deciding vote, a fact not lost on a “concerned citizen” who started a petition on change.org to persuade the councilman to support trail development. As of 10:15 a.m. Tuesday, the counter showed 2,400 signatures, though there’s no way of knowing how many signers were residents of his ward. A number of them, however, did indicate they use the marina for fishing or boating and would welcome improvements.

Timmons said he “does have some questions” that need answered before the vote, and pointed to a report compiled by Andrea Irland of the National Park Service two years ago in which she’d warned city leaders that, “It is in the city’s best interest to take care of what you have before asking the community for something new.”

Timmons said he’s seen young children playing ball at city fields that don’t even have dug outs. “I think it’s a shame that our kids have to play under those conditions,” Timmons added. “If we can’t maintain those parks, how are we going to maintain and keep up with marina plans. That’s my big concern.”

At the same time, Timmons said he wants residents to understand, “I do not want to lose that (grant) money.”

“There has been no discussion of giving the money back that I have been included in,” he reiterated in a social media post Monday, pointing out the issue at hand is whether the money should be “repurposed to the other parks that need it, specifically Belleview.”

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