Annual chamber trip gives county voice in Columbus

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 14, 2004

COLUMBUS - Cynics have said that somehow Lawrence County is the only place in America that Columbus failed to discover.

For the 11th consecutive year, the Greater Lawrence County Area Chamber of Commerce did its part to dispel that claim by taking more than 50 community members to the state capital Thursday to meet with state leaders about issues of local concern as part of the Legislative Day.

"People often complain that we are forgotten about in southern Ohio," said State Rep. Todd Book (D-89th). "The more of us that come up here makes it harder to forget."

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A unique project that has become a model for other counties and groups, the annual Lawrence County visit keeps state leaders informed about the needs in the county and also shows the dedication of the people, Book said.

Dr. Bill Dingus, executive director of the chamber and the Lawrence Economic Development Corporation, called the trip another great success, in part because of the level of state leaders that participated. In addition to Book, State Rep. Clyde Evans and Sens. Doug White and John Carey attended.

"For the amount of time we were there, a lot of material got covered," Dingus said. "It makes you proud of Lawrence County, proud of the people. So many people gave up their day to come be a part of this."

Travelers hailed from a variety of backgrounds, including private business owners, elected officials, educators, concerned citizens and others. Four high school students from Rock Hill and South Point made the trip as well.

"I thought it was interesting," said Rock Hill senior Amber Murnahan. "It is nice to see people from high up in the state discuss issues going on in Lawrence County."

Classmate Sarah Jenkins agreed that it was a nice change from school, but said she is still not sure if she is ready to run for governor.

"You never know," she joked. "I am keeping my options open."

Following a tour of the statehouse that was remodeled in 1993, the group headed to three separate meetings that focused on issues key to southern Ohio: transportation, economic development and natural resources.

In the transportation session, Andrew Gall, chief of staff at the Ohio Department of Transportation's central office, was the key speaker. The group discussed a variety of topics, including traffic issues at intersections in Burlington and at State Route 243 in Coal Grove and ways to continue to tie all three states together.

A hot topic for the past 10 years, the Chesapeake Bypass was hardly mentioned. Gall outlined other options for funding for the project, including going back to the Transportation Review Advisory Council or borrowing money on anticipated revenue sources that include KYOVA's $300,000 a year commitment, said Ralph Kline, of the Lawrence County CAO.

During lunch, Rep. Evans indicated that no one has given up on the project.

"Andrew (Gall), go back and very respectfully tell the people at ODOT that we will keep coming back the next year, the next year and the next year until we get the bypass," Evans said.

Ohio Department of Natural Resources Glen Alexander headed up the natural resources meeting that spanned a variety of topics, including ways to utilize the Wayne National Forest and Dean State Forest.

As a pleasant surprise, the Ohio Department of Development and the Governor's Office of Appalachia presented the LEDC with a $20,000 check to put toward a rural land use study that will focus on these areas.

Jean Carter Ryan, deputy director of the Ohio Department of Development's economic development division, outlined several ongoing issues that could affect workforce and jobs in Lawrence County.

A key focus was the Jobs Bill that is currently moving through the House and Senate. It could include $3 million to help encourage companies to hire more employees, an additional $12 million in training programs, changes to the enterprise zone laws and other job creation incentive programs, she said.

The governor also recently formed a Jobs Cabinets made up of 14 cabinet members. The new body will focus on how to help displaced workers, help employers find skilled workers and reduce the red tape of regulatory reform, Ryan said.

T.J. Justice, newly appointed director of the Governor's Office of Appalachia, spoke of the importance for counties to have information readily available for companies, keep a Web site up to date, respond quickly and keep existing businesses happy.

"Lawrence County, and all rural counties, have to realize what they can do to stay competitive. You have to support the LEDC, promote the South Point industrial park and the Ironton Industrial Park Š," he said. "You need to aggressively market your community in as creative ways as possible."

So at least for now, Columbus has not forgotten about southern Ohio.