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Officials push for action from Friendship Park Board

MAKING THE CASE — Robin Heald, speaking on behalf of the group who leases the drag strip at Friendship Park, updated the Jefferson County Commissioners on the ongoing talks with the Friendship Park Board on the potential extension of a lease agreement. The current lease expires in October. -- Andrew Grimm

STEUBENVILLE — The Jefferson County commissioners want to see action from the Friendship Park Board, and at least two of the commissioners know what they want that action to be.

Ed Glover, who leases the property inside the park that FreeBird Dragway is located on and operates the drag strip, and his friend and associate Robin Heald have been asking for a renewal of the drag strip’s lease for more three months. However, they have not been given an answer one way or the other.

The matter first came before the commissioners in May. Still seeking a resolution to the matter, Glover and Heald again appeared before the commissioners on Thursday.

“Over the last four months we have approached the park board and today we have no answer,” Heald said. “Tuesday’s meeting was another extension of maybe next month the park board will have an answer.

“A lot of people have put a lot of time and effort into getting an extension of FreeBird’s lease, and I feel that Ed, who has been a good steward, per (park board President) Roger Hilty, and the 100-plus people who have signed the petition deserve a resolution in a timely manner.”

They told the commissioners they attended Tuesday’s meeting of the park board, as they have multiple times throughout the process, and have provided all the information the park board has requested.

Heald told the commissioners Hilty was satisfied with the amount of coverage shown in information provided by the lessee’s insurance, with Heald stating it extends beyond what is required.

Liability concerns were cited as one reason for the park board taking time to review the matter and not taking action right away.

She said despite providing all the information requested, no action was taken Tuesday and it was stated it may occur next month, but that was not a guarantee.

“How do we get them to go?” she asked the commissioners.

She provided the commissioners with a timeline and documentation of correspondence and meetings the drag strip team have attended, including minutes from park board meetings.

The original request to renew the lease, which expires in October, came from Glover because he wished to invest $15,000 out of pocket to upgrade the race track’s surface, but wanted to know he would be operating the facility beyond this year before making the investment.

In May, Glover and company said they made approximately $40,000 in upgrades to the track in the last four years since starting to lease the facility.

He said Thursday that do to the time the process has now taken, it is too late in the year for the resurfacing work to be completed, but he would like an answer as soon as possible so he can plan to get his equipment out of the facility prior to October 31 should the lease not be renewed or be able to plan for improvements next year if it is renewed.

Heald stated Glover is asking for a two-year renewal with an option to extend and has offered to increase his rent during the racing season and in the off months.

“They basically told me if I needed an answer before the end of October, to shut the track down,” Glover said.

Another concern that was brought up by county engineer and park board member Jim Branagan during the discussion in May was the concerns over noise of the cars. It’s impact on the camp grounds and it potentially being a hindrance to future developments at the park was raised.

Hilty told the commissioners in May there is a $1.3 million project going on at the park through the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to make improvements to the trails, amenities and other aspects of the park, with another phase that could possibly come later such as a lodge or cabins on the lake.

Branagan stated in May he was against renewing the lease and wanted to see the park move forward without a race track, though he was not involved in Thursday’s discussion as he had already given the engineer’s weekly report and left the meeting.

Commissioner Dave Maple, however, did note it seems multiple members of the park board have similar concerns and for the sake of fairness pointed out the commissioners were not hearing their side of the argument because they were not there.

“My position is there are going to be two sides to this argument and I don’t think I’ve heard both sides yet,” he said. “It appears to me, at least at this point in time, there may be park board members who don’t want (the lease renewed) because of the noise, loudness, growth of the park, whatever the argument is.

“But they can’t keep asking you to solve another problem, say get me more information, get me more information, but they know they’re already going to be against it even if you supply all the information.

“If they have said they need this, this and this, and you’ve given them this, this and this, and they’re still not ready to put it on their agenda and take a vote, I’m going to do whatever I can to encourage them to vote on it.

“Quit pushing you down the road another month and another month.”

In addition to the list of drivers and fans Heald mentioned, she also said there was a list of campers she spoke with who are in support of the track and whose families come to the concession stand.

Commissioner Tony Morelli said during a visit he made to the facility multiple campers expressed to him they wished to see it remain open.

A motion was made by Maple to draft a letter asking the park board to bring the matter to vote at its next meeting. It passed unanimously.

Maple said there has been some question as to what authority the commissioners have in the matter, as they, the park board and the lessee all sign the agreements. The property belongs to the county, but is managed by the park board.

A motion was made to send the matter to the prosecutor’s office for review.

“It’s a little confusing we have the park board signing, the commissioners signing and (the lessee) signing,” Maple said.

While Maple expressed interest in hearing more from the park board, Commissioners Thomas Graham and Morelli both stated their support for the drag strip and the lease being renewed.

“Speaking only for myself, I intend to support the renewal,” Graham said. “I can’t speak for the park board, but speaking as a commissioner I intend to support, if we can get it in front of us, to renew that contract.”

“I’ve listened to both sides of the argument … and I have to say I have not had one phone call complaining since (Glover has) taken over that drag strip. Not one,” Graham later added, noting previous operators did garner complaints. “Whatever the park board is getting has never gotten to me, until all of a sudden now what (the park board) is saying about the campers.”

“After you took over that lease, it went from problematic to quiet,” Maple said. “(When) you asked for this new lease is the first I heard of any camping complaints or hindrance to growth.”

Morelli said he attended and spoke at the June park board meeting and has attended multiple events at the track.

“I told the board (at its June 15 meeting) that I would be in support of the drag strip staying,” he said. “I would support (the county) helping make it better.”

Morelli made a motion in support of the drag strip and the lease being renewed and he and Graham voted in favor.

Maple abstained from the vote to be fair to the park board, he said.

Dr. Mark Lewis, who said he is a race fan that often patronizes the track, also appeared to speak in support of the lease renewal.

“My wife and I are racing fans, and to that point, we were hoping humbly you consider renewing their contract,” he said. “We see it as not only an asset to Jefferson County, but the whole Tri-State Area. We’ve spoken to people who’ve come from Morgantown, East Liverpool, the Pittsburgh area, Harrison County. We see it as a draw to the entire Tri-State Area and a positive thing. It is one of many positive things with the hunting, fishing, water sports that we have with the river and lakes.

“I have spoken to people at the track, fans and racers, who come here specifically (because of the track). If they’re doing that, they are also spending money in the local community going to the convenience stores, the gas stations, the restaurants.”

Also noteworthy:

– After an executive session with county Board of Developmental Disabilities Superintendent Mike Zinno, the commissioners approved a contract for union employees of the board.

“I would like to say the contract here is with personnel that provide direct care service to arguably the most vulnerable of our society,” he said.

Zinno commended the staff and said the board is looking to fill multiple openings.

“We and our private providers are starving for good, quality employees,” he said.

Zinno was commended by the board for his work.

“Your passion for your clients and your job is top of the charts, your heart is really in it,” Morelli said.

– The commissioners granted a request for $2,000 in recreation funds to move playground equipment from Indian Creek Middle School to three parks in Wintersville.

The request noted the overall cost of the project was $9,000. Wintersville was one of the entities that missed the deadline to submit a request and it was noted they did not submit one last year.

“I’m really disappointed it took them this long to request the money,” Morelli said, in making the motion to approve the request. “They’ve got enough projects for probably five times or more that money.”

Maple said that request will be the end of recreation dollars for this year, as the fund allotted from permissive tax is almost exhausted.

– Branagan spoke to the commissioners about a process to obtain a piece of property in the northern end of the county to construct a new northern outpost for the department. A piece of property that meets all of the requirements is currently held by Energy Harbor, and he said talks with them came to a halt and he let the matter go for a while, but wants to pursue it again.

A motion was made to have the prosecutor’s office review the process for the county submitting a notice of intent to acquire the 5.96 acre piece of land in question.

– The board heard from Bob Loveridge of Jefferson County Cable about his company’s interest in being involved in expanding broadband access in the county’s rural and under-served areas.

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