Gas money paving way for mall road project

ST. CLAIRSVILLE – A $3 million check for gas leasing rights isn’t in the mail, but will be hand-delivered to Belmont County commissioners this week in time to cover the county’s share of cost for the Interstate 70 connector road project.

A representative of Rice Energy is scheduled to present the check for about $3,045,000 to commissioners at 9:15 a.m. Wednesday. Rice Energy is paying the county $7,500 per acre for drilling rights on about 406 county-owned acres, and the county will receive 20 percent of future production royalties.

Commissioners Matt Coffland and Mark Thomas said the first $1 million is earmarked for the connector road project.

The Ohio Department of Transportation had asked Belmont County to transfer $1.9 million to start construction of the connector road that would begin near the All Fore One miniature golf course along U.S. 40, then extend southwest of the Ohio Valley Plaza behind Sam’s Club and wind behind the Lowe’s Home Improvement store. It would link up with a roadway and bridge over Interstate 70 to be constructed by ODOT.

The ODOT road then would join with one being constructed behind the Ohio Valley Mall by the Cafaro Co., owners of the mall. ODOT then intends to extend the new highway to Mall Road.

Thomas said commissioners placed a $900,000 earmark for the $1.9 million connector road project in the 2014 budget with anticipation of taking the additional $1 million needed from the $3 million signing bonus with Rice Energy.

“In my memory, this is the first time the county will be receiving money such as this,” Thomas said. “It’s an atypical situation. If not for the gas industry, we wouldn’t have access to this money. Five or seven years ago … if you would have asked me if the county would get paid for mineral rights, I would have said, ‘probably not.’ But any time you get a windfall of money that doesn’t come from taxpayer’s pockets, it’s a great benefit for the county. The challenge now is … what do we do with it.”

Thomas said while the commissioners have committed $1 million to the I-70 road project, the rest of the money could be used to pay off some higher interest debt in the county and for reserve funds.

“And I have a desire – if we can make it work – to share some of the money with our various local governments,” Thomas said.

Coffland said the county negotiated for three months last year with Rice Energy, and he believes the contract achieved is a good one.

“We feel we got Belmont County a great agreement, not only with the signing bonus, but with the royalties,” he said. “Now we’re looking to spend the tax dollars wisely, and get rid of debt.”