EZ eyes progress, future

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Officials for the Huntington-Ironton Empowerment Zone celebrated five years of success and looked toward the future Tuesday by discussing an update to the entity's strategic plan.

Now that the program is entering the fifth year of its 10-year designation, board members and about 50 local officials were brought up to speed on the efforts to update the Empowerment Zone's original strategic plan that was written in 1998.

"We are concluding the fourth year of funding and getting to the midpoint of our designation," said Cathy Burns, executive director of the Huntington-Ironton Empowerment Zone. "It is time for the communities to say 'this is what we were going to do five years ago and this is what we have done.'"

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In early May, Marjorie Ryan of Benatec Associates out of New Cumberland, Penn., began conducting a 13-week study to outline the next five years of the federally funded program.

A final report will be made by the end of June.

The primary goals are to update the demographic data to reflect the 2000 Census results, reevaluate the original plan and determine what modifications are needed, Ryan said.

"This will be the road map that will help the EZ continue on for the next five years," she said. "In 1998, we came together with an imaginative vision based on hard data. Because it was based on this data, it is realistic and practical to think we can achieve it."

Ryan said she met with more than 20 people involved with Empowerment Zone strategies to get input including Ironton Mayor Bob Cleary and Pat Clonch, executive director of the LEDC and the Greater Lawrence County Area Chamber of Commerce.

However, Ryan did say that it would be hard to determine the true effect of the EZ until 2010 or 2020 because of the long-term scope of the projects.

The original plan focused on projects that touched one or more of six priority areas: human resources, infrastructure, developable sites, job creation, community collaboration and workforce development.

In the first five years of the designation, the EZ has received $22 million in grants, Burns said.

Local projects funded include The Point industrial park, renovation of the Marting Hotel, developing affordable housing units in Ironton, flood wall and streetscape projects in Ironton, as well as Kinetic Park and Pullman Square in Huntington, W.Va.

After discussing some of the differences in the Census information from 1990 to 2000, Ryan asked those in attendance whether the original goals are still effective and what needs to change.

Clonch reiterated that it is important to recognize all the partnerships that have been made and continue the projects that have already begun rather than starting new projects with funding still a question mark.

Future funding for Empowerment Zones has been in jeopardy because of President George W. Bush's lack of support. However, Congress approved the fifth year of allocation in February. The Huntington-Ironton Zone has been allocated $1.9 million for 2003-2004.

Similar bills have been introduced for 2004-2005 and could be adopted later this year, Burns said.

Ralph Kline, community development director for the CAO, stated that the communities need to continue to work together to solve common problems. He also said the EZ should promote the tax credits more because it may be more permanent than the grant funding.

Jim Crawford, of Ohio University's Center for Development, made the analogy between the EZ and the Nike shoe company that has managed to make its products hugely appealing.

"I think we have built the infrastructure. The next step is to not only support those but to market them," he said. "That part we have never been terrific at, but we need to become terrific at it."