ARC, leaders chart course for region

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 13, 2000

Better telecommunications, an interstate, increased Internet access, a regional airport – all are concerns local leaders say the Appalachian Regional Commission should consider priorities when developing a new economic strategy this fall.

Thursday, July 13, 2000

Better telecommunications, an interstate, increased Internet access, a regional airport – all are concerns local leaders say the Appalachian Regional Commission should consider priorities when developing a new economic strategy this fall.

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"First, I ask that Interstate 73/74 be a cornerstone," Ohio University Southern Campus dean Dr. Bill Dingus said Wednesday at an ARC town meeting.

Then, partner with public companies to generate better cell phone and Internet technology for the Tri-State – the infrastructure needed to sustain jobs now and into the future, he said.

Dingus, Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton, Ironton Mayor Bob Cleary, state representatives from Lawrence County and neighboring Kentucky and West Virginia, local human services agency officials, Lawrence County commissioners and hundreds of other public and private leaders joined suggestions at the town meeting, touting regionalism and technology development as key building blocks to improve the area’s distressed economy.

The meeting is the fifth in the Appalachian Regional Commission’s series on distressed counties held throughout the Ohio Valley to explore critical problems that the counties face.

"We’re here to listen and learn and find out how better to develop solutions," Taft said during the meeting.

The ARC came to Ironton, an area that’s moving away from the economic setbacks of job loss, because ideas are made in Appalachia, he said.

Taft talked of speaking with Clinton this week about the Piketon uranium plant closing, calling for a detailed investigation into the U.S. Enrichment Corp.’s decision. He also touted the state’s hiring of three new development specialists in its Appalachian offices, the state’s new grant ideas and its commitment to transportation improvements in the Lawrence County area.

"But obviously there is a need for continued strong commitment from the ARC and Congress," the governor said.

Taft said he will lead the call for additional ARC funding and strategic planning sessions where everybody from governors to mayors can share ways of working together and learn best practices to improve the economy.

But the state may have to do more for its share of Appalachian counties, including Lawrence, he said.

Partnering with local governments and developing better electronic infrastructure are just two ways, Taft said.

And the state will continue market its Appalachian counties, steering industries this direction, he said.

Mayor Cleary said Ironton and communities across the Ohio River will embrace such ideas, which they have needed to hear for some time.

"They are bringing up points of interest with the public, saying here’s the game plan we want to develop," he said.

Cleary added that he came away Wednesday with several ideas.

One idea was a national demonstration project in southern Ohio – public-private partnerships for information technology.

"The ARC could be a catalyst to pull others together, to truly make a model and have phone companies, cable companies, cell companies linked ," Dingus said.

The project could also include training centers for future workers.

The idea would join the infrastructure that companies need with the workforce southern Ohio already has available and create sustainable economies in all three states, Dingus said.

That allusion to regionalism was found throughout Wednesday’s meeting, something Greater Lawrence County Area Chamber of Commerce executive director Pat Clonch saw as positive.

"One thing came out loud and clear," Mrs. Clonch said. "As a Tri-State, we should do a strategic plan."

Everyone sees the same issues, whether its access to high-speed Internet connections or better roads, she said.

Each state cannot address all the issues, yet all the states together can address all the issues, Mrs. Clonch said.

"Now we got it all out on the table and all the players were there."

Priorities established during an audience poll late in the meeting show most people were concerned with more technology, like T1 communication lines, followed by boosts in education, a regional airport, an interstate, more healthcare, local leadership development and investment capital for entrepreneurs.

ARC officials plan to take that information and more gathered Wednesday, develop a new strategy for boosting Appalachian economy and release specific proposals in the fall.

Jesse White, ARC federal co-chair, hinted Wednesday about extra dollars for Appalachia, especially counties like Lawrence – not considered distressed but at risk of becoming distressed.

"We’re taking a serious look," White said.

But the ARC needs to know the best ways to do it and what innovations will work, he said.

One innovation – promoting available job sites and the local workforce – is already under way in Lawrence County.

Dingus presented Gov. Taft with a copy of the county’s first advertisement campaign at the town meeting.

The ad is the first marketing tool developed with state assistance given after Ironton’s recent loss of more than 1,000 jobs.

It’s ready to go out in a national industrial magazine, targeted to thousands of industries, Dingus said.