Town Hall held at Belmont fair

ST. CLAIRSVILLE The Belmont County Commissioners held a public meeting and open forum at the fairgrounds yesterday, offering an opportunity for residents to ask questions and hear a report on the state of the area.

The increasing oil and gas interest in the area and its impact on the future was among topics under discussion. Stephen Schumacher, extension educator in agriculture, gave an update. As one consequence of the interest, he said oil and gas funding were responsible for paying about $35,000 toward new buildings at the fairgrounds.

Commissioner Ginny Favede noted that the county hotels are full, with the county receiving the lodging tax. Tourism has also increased. Motels have also been revitalized.

Port Authority Director Larry Merry added that one new motel is under construction and three more are expected or in the planning stage.

Schumacher added that as of Aug. 3, 321 horizontal Utica permits have been issued, and 40 more since last month, with nine in Belmont County. Four Utica wells are being drilled, two Marcellus Shale wells. Chesapeake Energy has been a leading company statewide, with others expected to pick up soon. He hopes to see 1,000 permits by 2013. ODNR expects 50 wells to be in production by year-end.

“It has the potential to have a lot of impact in Belmont County, and I think it already has,” he said. “This has only begun. It’s going to continue to pick up.”

He noted that production is the next step, and will call for the installation of pipeline and other infrastructure.

In other areas of infrastructure, Merry observed that Dominion Energy has invested millions in Route 331. Other investments are expected. He and Schumacher noted a significant population growth is imminent with its accompanying demand for infrastructure. Issues such as water and air quality and social impact are also being observed.

Associated businesses such as vehicle and tractor sales have also increased. Commissioner Matt Coffland added that unemployment in the county is down to less than seven percent from 12.5 percent three years ago, with all union employees working.

Commissioner Charles R. Probst, Jr. noted that county spending has been cut by $7 million during the last two years, with little interruption in county services. The commissioners are working with the auditor to balance costs with department needs.

“It’s going to touch all industries. It’s going to have an impact on all of us,” Merry said, complimenting commissioners for their work in preparing for the changes.

However, the county faces some obstacles at the state level. Favede noted cuts to local government funds needed for schools and roads, with further cuts expected next year.

“It’s extremely frustrating,” Favede said. “At the time when we need these monies the most, when we have an opportunity to prosper, we’re having our ability to take care of our own needs taken away from us.”

Merry added that they were also concerned about a state plan to distribute oil and gas taxes statewide in the form of an income tax reduction rather than keeping the funds in the counties where they are produced.

“We’re losing on both ends,” said Favede, adding that Rep Allan Sayre and Sen. Lou Gentile support keeping local government funds local, while County Auditor Andrew Sutek is preparing a petition to take to the state.

The state of the fairgrounds itself and progress in improving them for future events was also under discussion.

Coffland noted recent additions of a wash house and shower house and agreed that a sewage system was next on the list of priorities. He said the commissioners hoped to see a system implemented before the next fair.

Fair Board President Jerry Campbell is working on a grant application for such a project.

Probst added that commissioners recognized the potential for the fairgrounds in the early 2000s when sewage was being installed in Fox Commerce Park. A main sewer line was installed near the property. He added that fluctuations of sales tax revenues have stalled this next phase.

They noted that the fairgrounds have also been used by oil and gas interests to promote information for employment opportunities. Other agencies and entrepreneurs have also done county business on the grounds.

“I’m thrilled to see the growth in Belmont County, Favede said.

Also, Susan A. Davis and Emily Clift, Americorps, OSU Housing Corps, reported on new programs allowing homeowners in default to apply for $25,000 toward their mortgage payments. Ohio has been allotted $570.4 million from the Hardest Hit Fund.

4-H Extension Educator Jane Keyser noted that 4-H Youth Development has been active, with 500 young people participating in animal exhibits. About 700 county students participated in the fair field trip. Livestock presence is up to 750 animals and sales are up $12,000.

Also, Jr. Fair Princess Jessica Roberts was recognized and spoke about the qualities sought in fair royalty. She noted volunteerism and community service as leading factors.

In other matters, commissioner rejected bids for repairs to the courthouse parking lot. They exceeded 10 percent. The project will be re-bid with hopes of completion before winter.

DeFrank can be reached at