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Steubenville Council members urged to think big

SPREADING THE WORD — Ohio Mid-Eastern Government’s Association Executive Director Jeannette Wierzbicki said Steubenville and surrounding communities can’t afford to miss out on the governor’s $500 million Appalachian Community Grant program. -- Linda Harris

STEUBENVILLE — Ohio Mid-Eastern Governments Association Executive Director Jeannette Wierzbicki told City Council that if they want in on the governor’s $500 million Appalachian Community Grant Program, they’ll need to think big. Really big.

Speaking at council’s economic development committee meeting Tuesday, Wierzbicki said that while the guidelines are still being worked out, it’s a “one-time chance for the 32 Appalachian counties in Ohio to do some transformational improvements to our community — projects you may have only been able to dream about but never had a chance to do.”

“This project isn’t going to fund basic infrastructure,” she said. “We all need roads, I know there’s a tremendous need for water and wastewater projects in the city. Unfortunately, this isn’t the program for it. This is for those outside-the-box projects that are transformational projects that are collaborative throughout the county or even in conjunction with multiple counties.”

While there’s lots of potential — Wierzbicki ticked off a quick list that included Historic Fort Steuben, the downtown architecture, murals, trails and the river — she said whatever they propose must be self-sustaining and life-changing, not just for Steubenville but for the entire region.

“They don’t want to see Steubenville do a downtown revitalization and Wintersville do a trail,” she said. “They want to see a cohesive plan, a cohesive vision for a county, for a region, that will benefit everyone and be truly transformational.”

She suggested using the time before the guidelines come out to “have those discussions with your neighbors, (see) what would be some common themes that would bring everyone together.”

“It’s a tremendous opportunity,” Wierzbicki said. “It’s time to think big, think outside of the box … think about if you only had $10 million, if you only had $15 million or $20 million or $40 million, what would you do? It’s our chance. The governor has placed a lot of faith in our region to make a lot of good, solid investments in our future. We want to make sure whatever we do … it has to be sustainable. We have to work together.”

She said up to $30 million in the first round of funding will be available for planning, “and we’re really really encouraging communities to go after those planing dollars so they can go after their vision, try to make their plans a reality.”

Council also briefly discussed increasing the amount homeowners can spend on do-it-yourself renovations without getting a permit. The limit is currently $250, which members felt was much too low.

It was suggested increasing the threshold might free up the code inspector for other work, but council was told the enforcement staff would still need to do inspections to make sure repairs were being done in compliance with city code.

Discussion was suspended until Urban Projects Director Chris Petrossi could be present.

Sixth Ward Councilman Mike Hernon also suggested to council it was time to think about how “we can help grow and encourage businesses in Steubenville,” sparking a debate with 4th Ward Councilman Royal Mayo, who said people must come first.

“We get our money to serve the citizens from taxpayers, that’s who we serve, that’s who funds the majority of our work here,” Hernon said. “Where do the taxpayers get their money? By being employed. We need to recognize when we grow businesses, we grow peoples’ income. Growing income grows our tax base to serve more people.”

Hernon said he’s asked Finance Director Dave Lewis to “research how we get our taxes.”

He said council needs to figure out how to “encourage and stimulate growth of businesses, how do we make ourselves and our city more attractive for business and how do we know that there are businesses we should do our level-best to retain”

“I do want business to succeed, but business can pretty much take care of itself,” Mayo said. “… I didn’t get voted in by business. My primary concern should be people, and if you take care of people, then business takes care of itself. I’m not here to represent business interests,” Mayo said. “What business wants is to grow money, not necessarily people … if they get a chance to push people down by giving them less money, that’s what they’re going to do.”

Hernon pointed out, “our tax base is coming from people who pay taxes. So if we want to increase the number of people coming here who are either increasing their income or increase number of people who come here, we need to make sure businesses grow.”

“I think we need to recognize the vast majority of people are employed by businesses, local business,” he said. “How we encourage that (leads) to growth both in income for our taxpayers as well as the amount of people they employ. This is a good thing for our community.

“How to retain and grow business is going to be essential for our future, how do we do public-private partnerships so our community can grow and thrive … to me, that’s the most vital question we need to ask in economic development.”

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