ST. CLAIRSVILLE - Officials from across the 18 counties of Ohio's 6th District met at Undo's Wednesday for the second annual Ohio 6th District Collaboration Forum.
Rep. Bill Johnson hosted the bipartisan collaboration.
Topics included existing infrastructure issues and needs, shared services between communities, the impact of the Affordable Care Act on local communities and governments, and other local issues of interest to those in attendance.
"This is our second collaboration forum and we have almost twice as many people this time as we had last year. What this is designed to do is to get a crossflow of lessons learned. Some counties have a process in whatever the issue might be that is working better than other counties, and we talk about what those concepts are, whether it's economic development or infrastructure. Whatever that might be," he said.
Johnson added that the event saw representation from the Governor's Office over Appalachia, the USDA Economic Development Agencies.
"They talked to folks about what kind of programs are available, how we can collaborate and work together to make things smoother and to improve the quality of lives for people that we all represent," he said. "It's an annual opportunity for us to see what everybody else is doing and where we can improve."
Johnson said a primary concern is ways the area might benefit from the new oil and gas interests.
"The oil and gas industry is bringing a lot of jobs, a lot of investment into our region. We want to be able to see the hardworking people of Appalachia, this 18-county district, we want to see them be able to benefit from the resource that sits under their feet. Whether it's infrastructure programs, development programs, we stand ready to help connect the dots with the various agencies. Some of that money flows through grant opportunities from the federal government down through to the states, and we'd like to do everything we can to see that money get into actual programs. It's exciting to see progress on these things."
A series of speakers presented during the morning included an economic development panel including Jason Wilson from the Governor's Office of Appalachia, Deputy Director Joy Padgett, Lee Shirley, Economic Development Administration, and Area Director John Miller of USDA Rural Development.
Afterward, the meeting featured breakout stations to allow each county in its economic development region to talk with local development leadership and their specific regional issues.
"I think there's a lot of optimism about the opportunities that exist in front of us. I know we've got some challenges. Workforce development is a big challenge for us. All of the oil and gas business that's coming to our region," he said, adding that about $12 billion of investment has come into the region from oil and gas companies that have begun operations.
"So Workforce Development making sure that our hardworking people, our families, are competitive and ready to take the jobs of tomorrow. That's very important," he said, adding that they are working with institutions such as Eastern Gateway Community College, Marietta College, the Mahoning and Columbiana County Career Technical Center, Washington State College, to make the educational establishments aware of the needs of these industries.
Local officials were present to take advantage of the opportunities provided.
"Any opportunity we have to work locally with our federal legislators is always an opportunity that I'm eager to take," said Commissioner Ginny Favede. "Congressman Johnson has proven to be a friend to Belmont County and willing to work with us on our issues locally."
"I think it's a good idea getting everybody together and making available different agencies we work with throughout the year," said St. Clairsville Mayor Robert Vincenzo, noting the possibilities regarding grant funding and infrastructure needs. "I think it's important that the constituents hear it firsthand."
John Miller, area director, USDA Rural Development, said he explained what federal assistance was available through the USDA for counties, townships and villages from projects and community facilities.
"There's funding available," he said. "There's both loan and grant money available. We're taking applications from those communities, and we're just trying to get the word out so that some of the communities know what's available to them."
Jason Wilson added that his office took the opportunity to share information about available programs and opportunities for communities in Eastern Ohio as well as available state and federal resources.
"Our goal was to educate them on what the Governor's Office of Appalachia has available and who we can partner with other state and fed agencies to help communities meet their goals, and help them with their financing and help the communities at large work together to meet some of our goals in the Governor's Office of Appalachia, which is to compete and be prepared for the future, not only of the state, but of this country," he said.
DeFrank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.