ORC: County, city need unified port authority

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 21, 2003

BURLINGTON - Two heads may be better than one, but the same logic may not apply to port authorities.

That was one of the messages Jim Seney delivered Friday to members of the Greater Lawrence County Area Chamber of Commerce. And local elected officials say it is a message they are beginning to discuss.

Seney, executive director of the Ohio Rail Commission, spoke about port authorities to chamber members during the September membership meeting held at the Grandview Inn.

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Seney detailed his thoughts about the creation of port authorities and tried to dispel some of the myths about them.

"A port authority could very easily be called a development authority," Seney said. "And it's not a place. Technically, it's a political subdivision, just like a township or a village."

Although its name is misleading, a port authority would not necessarily require construction of any kind, Seney said. In fact, the initial stages of a port authority could largely be paperwork, a small board and one person leading it.

"They can be as big and complex as you want them to be," he said. "It's sort of like a Swiss Army knife for development. It's a tool you can use when you need it.

"It's got to be directed to the needs of your community," Seney said. "The best way to do this is through a countywide port authority. It's like a pyramid; the bigger the base, the more support."

The City of Ironton established a port authority in late July. The county commission has considered creating a port authority as well.

Seney said although nothing would be wrong with a community having separate authorities, it would be best if they were combined.

"(With two) you can do many of the same things, but it becomes more cumbersome," he said.

Too often, political concerns cloud the creation of port authorities, Seney said.

"It's always viewed as giving up power, but actually it's adding power," he said. "When a port authority becomes politicized, it becomes ineffective."

The law allowing creation of port authorities helps the authority function in ways traditional government cannot. This can help insulate the public from risk traditionally involved with many economic incentive and bond uses, Seney said.

"One of the great things a port authority can do is limit liability - both politically and financially," he said "They are great tools for development."

Despite initially heading in two different directions, city and county leaders are beginning to entertain the idea of combining their efforts.

Newly appointed director of the chamber and the Lawrence Economic Development Corp., Bill Dingus said he hopes to bring together city and county leaders to consider the benefits of joining forces.

"I think our county stands at a really pivotal position," Dingus said. "One of the things we want to do is see if there is potential for all of the community to unite tighter."

"I think whatever we can do to make it better for the whole county is the way to go," said Lawrence County Commissioner George Patterson. "I think it would be a good move, if all of us joined together."

Ironton Mayor Bob Cleary said he believes the council might be interested in a combined port authority.

"Now that there has been some different directions that the chamber and LEDC have gone, I think the combined port authority can only add strength," Cleary said. "It could possibly be stronger if it was an Ironton-Lawrence County port authority."

Despite the possibility, Cleary said the city is still moving ahead with its own plans and are forming a list of potential port authority board members. The city council must approve port authority board selections.

"Ultimately, it's up to the city council, but I think it warrants having some discussion," Cleary said.