EZ working on updated strategic plan

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 12, 2003

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Because all projects identified in the original plan have begun, the Huntington-Ironton Empowerment Zone has started working on a new strategic plan to outline the next five years.

Now that the Huntington-Ironton Empowerment Zone is approaching the halfway point of its 10-year designation, the board chose to do a review to update the plan.

"The original strategic plan that enabled us to receive the Empowerment Zone funds was written in 1998, and we were designated in 1999," said Cathy Burns, executive director of the Huntington-Ironton Empowerment Zone. "We prepared a $20 million implementation plan for two years. It has taken almost five years to get that $20 million, but we have started the implementation of everything in that plan, so we now want to update it."

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Benatec Associates, of New Cumberland, Penn., began conducting a 13-week study that will be used to create the plan. Marjorie Ryan of Benatec will meet with elected officials, business leaders, schools boards and others to get input, Burns said.

The four goals are to update the demographic data since the previous figures came from the 1990 census, to see how these individual strategic plans of school boards, chambers and business leaders will work with the Empowerment Zone and identify any gaps, to look at how the 1,200 businesses in the zone have taken advantage of tax credits and see what can be done to improve the program and to identify new strategies and projects to be looked at between now and 2009, Burns said.

"Directly, this will determine how any future funding is obligated," she said. "It is important for people who live in the zone to provide input."

Benatec representatives will attend the Empowerment Zone's annual meeting at noon on June 17 at Ohio University Southern to present a draft. The final report will be made by the end of June, Burns said.

Burns said they have been pleased with progress made during the first five years. The original plan focused on six distinct areas: human resources, infrastructure,

sites that can be developed, job creation, community collaboration and workforce development.

Local projects that have received funding include The Point industrial park, renovation of the Marting Hotel, developing 50 affordable housing units on Storms Creek and 38 more in Ironton, the Ironton floodwall and streetscape projects, a work force development partnership with Collins Career Center, approving job incentive dollars for entities like the Lawrence Economic Development Corporation, funding a position with the Coalition for the Homeless and more, Burns said.

Although too soon to look at future projects, Burns said that they would like to look at ways to improve the tax credit system to assist family owned businesses that are not eligible because they do not have any non-family member employees and to look at helping downtown businesses grow.

"One thing that my board feels very passionate about is focusing on downtown development and providing resources to let downtown business owners expand their income," she said. "We would like to help businesses expand online, promote one aspect of their business or find a particular niche."

Ryan met with Ironton Mayor Bob Cleary and Pat Clonch, executive director of the LEDC and the Greater Lawrence County Area Chamber of Commerce Wednesday.

Both agreed that the meetings went well.

While agreeing that it is important for this update to be conducted, Clonch said she emphasized to Ryan that "it would be fiscally irresponsible to start any new projects."

Clonch said

she also discussed how the other partnerships, such as those with Ohio University Southern, have helped keep unemployment levels down and helped the county move forward even during tough economic times.

Cleary said they exchanged a lot of good ideas.

"We discussed the past four years and how we have benefited and looked at the direction the community could go in for the future," he said.

While future funding for Empowerment Zones has been in jeopardy because of President George W. Bush's lack of support, Congress approved the fifth year of allocation in February. The Huntington-Ironton Zone has been allocated $1.9 million for 2003-2004. Bills are being introduced for 2004-2005 and could be adopted later this year, Burns said.

"I want people to know we have received five years of funding so we are half way through the original designation," she said. "Because we have bipartisan support we are optimistic we will stay in business until 2009."