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Project Forward looking to help improve Purple City

MARTINS FERRY — Project Forward continues working to revitalize Martins Ferry’s downtown business area and bring tourism to the city.

The Rev. William Webster, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church and president of Project Forward, said the nonprofit is looking toward the future. The past year has been difficult for people and businesses amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but officials intend to keep looking forward.

Project Forward is an economic redevelopment organization formed in 2016 following a fire that destroyed multiple businesses. The group works to promote local businesses and attract visitors to the city.

Project Forward Vice President Paul Stecker said there has been a lot going on over the past six months. The group has been working with Heritage Ohio and Main Street America to develop a full plan for the downtown area and how to revitalize it.

Stecker said the group is working on a Geographic Information Systems mapping project and conducting an asset survey — both of which will help create tools for entrepreneurs, investors and businesses.

“They’ll be able to use them in the future to best determine whether or not they want to invest in Martins Ferry and how to best invest into Martins Ferry,” he said, noting the survey was sent to businesses throughout the city.

The group is working on a few new projects, including awarding two scholarships for students who reside in the city and establishing grants or low-interest loans for downtown businesses.

“These would help businesses do restorations or renovations to their facade,” Webster said.

Webster also said the group has partnered with Belmont County Tourism Council in efforts to increase visitor traffic.

“We’ve got all these different stores in town, and we want to let people know that they’re here. We’re trying to highlight some of the unique businesses that we have,” he said.

Stecker said the city is already moving in a positive direction with the reopening of East Ohio Regional Hospital and a number of new businesses moving in. The group also plans to discuss some of its annual events, such as the Strawberry Festival and Winter Fest. Although the group has not had a chance to meet to discuss the events, it is “unlikely” that the Strawberry Festival will happen this year, Stecker said. It was canceled last year as well due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Webster said the festival requires months of planning along with donations from the community. He said he did not feel it was right asking for financial support from local businesses who have already had a tough time this year.

“In order to have it operate in June, we would have to start work on it in January. I personally didn’t feel comfortable asking the community to support us financially to get things going,” he said.

Stecker said the group hopes to hold Winter Fest in November.

Webster said the festivals are just a small portion of what the organization does. The festivals are used as fundraising events to put money back into the community, he said.

Webster said the members are very thankful for the community’s support.

“Without the community’s support, we wouldn’t be able to do anything, and the community’s support is really reflected by the people in Martins Ferry who responded to our survey. That’s enabling us to really be able to move forward and that’s the idea — to keep moving forward,” he said.

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