Belmont County to plan for Appalachian grant projects

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — The first rounds of planning dollars for the Appalachian Community Grant Program are being released, and Belmont County officials will get to work looking over local projects.

Last year, Gov. Mike DeWine announced $500 million will be infused into Ohio’s 32 Appalachian counties for local, community-directed improvement projects. As a first step, an initial $30 million is going toward project planning and technical assistance, with the $470 million for implementation.

Commissioner J.P. Dutton said the announcement came Monday.

“Belmont County will be receiving a quarter-million dollars to do the planning of the projects,” he said. “This all went through the state controlling board. … One thing was $7-8 million worth of planning grants. … The majority of the ones, they’re going to go through this planning process, and they’re going to be submitted this fall.

“We’ll receive access to that fairly soon, I think in the next week or two,” he said.

The next step will be for the county steering committee to begin frequent, scheduled meetings.

“The steering committee will be meeting fairly regularly,” Dutton said. “We’ve had initial meetings. Now that we know we’ve been awarded, we are in the process of selecting a planner that will work with us. That should happen in the next week or so, and then we’ll get that planner on board. The steering committee will start getting into the projects, but once the planner’s on board we’ll be including them in the process, too, and then working really hard to get whatever we need to do done by fall.”

The steering committee has not set an upcoming meeting, but Dutton said the members are likely to have their first post-announcement session within two weeks.

Dutton said there are seven members: the three county commissioners; Port Authority Director Larry Merry, whose office is the point of contact for the state; Tourism Director Jackee Pugh; and private residents Brad Hudson of Barnesville and Lisa Duvall of Shadyside.

They will evaluate the various proposed projects and pass some on to the state.

“There’ll be a lot of criteria. We have nearly 30 projects that’ve been identified to this point, not that one could not still emerge, but those are the ones we have on hand right now. We don’t make the final determination, we’re more of a trying to prepare the projects that we think most meet the criteria and have chances of getting awarded. The ultimate selection awards will come at the state level.”

He said no specific amount of money has been dedicated per county.

“I’m sure the governor’s office would like to see every county receive some funding, but there’s no allocation. It’s strictly based on how good your projects are. We think we have a good shot to secure some projects,” Dutton said.

Referring to comments from DeWine, Dutton said criteria include “transformational” projects that benefit communities.

“It’s going to be tourism-related, downtown revitalization related, mental health/health related, so the opioid crisis is another pillar. So those are the things we’re going to look at and see the projects we have and how they match up to what the governor’s looking for,” he said.

Merry said the committee will “hit the ground running” to evaluate projects.

“That’ll be determined through the summer and early fall. All we’ll be doing is sending in applications for the bigger pot of money, which is the funding of the projects. That’ll be an ongoing process,” Merry said. “The projects’ll be studied. Are they feasible? Can the applicants maintain these long term?”

Dutton said even in the event that some projects are not funded, the groundwork will have been laid for future potential funding.

“These planning dollars are important because it’s allowing us to evaluate these projects,” Dutton said. “Say a particular project doesn’t make it through the entire process and get awarded at the state level. Being able to spend some money to evaluate these projects, you never know if there could be other opportunities down the road for state and Title funding, because we would have the projects planned out and evaluated. There’s funding to be had, and Belmont County I think is going to be successful with some of that funding. But that doesn’t mean we can’t look at other avenues for these projects we’re evaluating, down the road.”

Dutton and Merry said they are unsure if the funds are “up front” or reimbursable.

“This is the first time this has ever been done. This program is a one-time program,” Merry said, adding that the Ohio Department of Development and the Ohio Appalachian Regional Commission are operating the initiative. “This is basically CARES Act money that the state has designated for Appalachia. It has to be spent by the end of 2026. … This grant process is probably different than any grant process I’ve ever been through.”


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