Steubenville council OKs water line

LOOKING AHEAD — First Ward Councilman Gerald DiLoreto told council Tuesday he’d like to see an ad-hoc committee formed to determine if it would be feasible to “expand, maintain and allocate money toward the marina.” -- Linda Harris

STEUBENVILLE — In a move that surprised even its most ardent supporters, City Council decided Tuesday to extend the LaBelle Avenue water line as close to the city marina as it can with the $100,000 state capital grant that has been awarded for the work.

The decision caps weeks of heated debate over whether to repurpose the grant, awarded in 2018 to aid in construction of the extension and public restrooms. Sixth Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna had proposed asking state lawmakers to repurpose the funding so it could instead be used for other recreation needs, a proposal that initially seemed to have caught the fancy of several others on council.

But Tuesday, council voted 6-1, with Villamagna dissenting, to install the water line and ask City Engineer Mike Dolak to “look for grant money” to cover any remaining costs.

It was 3rd Ward Councilman Eric Timmons who surprised the gallery by making the motion to move forward with the extension, saying after the meeting that, “After gathering and hearing all of the information, I feel that is the best course of action.”

“I also feel if anything is ever going to happen at the marina, the water line is necessary,” Timmons said.

“I feel at this point it would be too difficult to re-appropriate the money to other marina projects or other parks.”

Fifth Ward Councilman Willie Paul seconded the motion, saying he feared asking state lawmakers to redirect the funding at this late date could send the wrong message and jeopardize the possibility of receiving future awards.

“Use it for what it’s meant for,” Paul told his fellow council members prior to the vote. “I feel this is the way we should go.”

After the meeting, Paul said it’s “like if you need money to fix your car and I give you the money to fix (it), don’t use it for a TV or a vacation because I will never give you money again.”

“Do you not think that we weren’t under scrutiny for all the phone calls to our representatives?” he asked. “They had to be scratching their heads and (wondering) what was going on in Steubenville.”

Villamagna and Councilwoman at large Kimberly Hahn battled head-to-head over the project for weeks, with Hahn arguing it was key to turning the riverfront into a recreational focal point. Hahn insisted that upgrading the marina and developing the riverfront had “great potential” to improve the quality of life for area residents and “could have a lasting, positive impact on the community,” though she also admitted the idea was “not without challenges.”

Hahn insists the public wrangling over the grant money might actually have gotten city residents “thinking about possibilities.”

“What I’d like to think is that people sat down and reasoned that the money was earmarked from the last budget, not this year’s, and politicians just didn’t want to be messing around now trying to get it repurposed,” she added. “I think (there’s been) a groundswell of people being reasonable. I think reasonable people contacted them, they contacted me, and said we need to do something that moves the marina forward.”

“This is what gives people hope, the idea the marina — maybe even the riverfront — could be developed,” Hahn said afterward, pointing out residents had been sending her photos showing what other riverfront communities across America had done to capitalize on their location. “I think people are thinking about possibilities.”

Villamagna, though, remained skeptical, insisting the city has too many critical spending needs, including a crumbling 125-year-old sandstone bridge at Beatty Park that it can’t afford to repair.

“I’m not for it, but that’s democracy,” he said after the meeting. “That’s the way it works.”

Villamagna pointed out the water line will be traversing property that at one time had been used for industrial purposes, and what was envisioned as a $100,000 project could very quickly go over budget.

“I think it’s a mistake, even if we had the money,” he said. “It’s going to be a water line to nowhere. I believe we could have reappropriated the money for more important things.”

Fourth Ward Councilman Scott Dressel, though, called the decision a “great step forward in the right direction for the future of Steubenville,” while 2nd Ward Councilman Craig Petrella said with the decision behind them, it’s time for local leaders to “think outside the box.”

He’s suggesting they form a 501(c)(3), a nonprofit that could apply for more grants and get approved faster.

“It can be a beautiful green space, a place where people can go to enjoy the scenic Ohio River,” Petrella said, pointing out the extension and accompanying fire hydrants will enhance public safety and make it easier for fire crews to clean the marina wall after flooding. “It could bring people to the marina just as the fort has brought people to the downtown. I think it would have been a mistake to try and get state lawmakers to revisit a grant they’d awarded months ago.

“We’d never get a second bite at that apple,” said Petrella, adding he wanted to be remembered “as a visionary. I want to be proactive instead of reactive.”

“That’s what we’re trying to do,” Hahn said. “Not solve each individual problem, but move the ball forward.”

First Ward Councilman Gerald DiLoreto called for formation of an ad-hoc committee to determine if it would be feasible to “expand, maintain and allocate money towards the marina,” bringing together representatives of the Jefferson County Port Authority, Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, private enterprise, business leaders and even West Virginia authorities, “since they own the river.” DiLoreto also said Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District Watershed Coordinator Aaron Dodd should chair the committee, saying he has “a wealth of knowledge concerning the marina.”

DiLoreto said the committee could be tasked with addressing issues like financing, rights-of-way, the proximity to the Norfolk-Southern rail lines, property ownership, bids, potential grant funding and engineering costs, pointing out Dolak himself said costs “could go as high as $10 million.”

“My main concern is the infrastructure,” DiLoreto added. “The past year we borrowed (millions of dollars) to cure the ills of the sewer and water departments, along with raising the water rates. (That’s) no easy job. I wish concerned citizens would take time and look at the valves and pipes that have been removed from the foundation of the streets. Most have been buried under the trolley tracks that were in operation in the 1920s. They’re rusted, clogged, not in working condition. I doubt the junk yard would take them. We could have had a Flint, Mich., (water crisis) on our hands.”

Hahn said she was as surprised as anyone by what transpired at Tuesday’s meeting.

“I was hoping it wouldn’t be a tight vote,” she said afterward. “To me, it was a real consensus of council. I prayed so hard about this, I didn’t want to create more distress. I wanted us to move forward.”