Regionalism as a means for economic development continues to be a theme among local leaders, but it is never as easy as it appears.
Elected officials are often skeptical or hesitant to give support to larger, regional projects, particularly those they have not been involved in directly.
This was evidenced in the last two weeks when several items on Ashland city commissioners’ consent agendas spurred heated discussion among elected officials.
The items requested permission for Mayor Chuck Charles to sign letters of support for two regional economic development efforts — one by the Ashland Alliance and another by the Port of Huntington. Both were singled out by Commissioner Larry Brown for discussion items at the June 20 meeting.
The first was a letter supporting “The Port of Huntington Investing in Manufacturing Communities Program Grant — A Tri-State Strategy Proposal” grant application.
Charles said the letter, requested to be signed retroactively, was only in support of the grant application and would not cost or commit the city to anything.
If the grant is successful, it would fund a strategic study to be completed by officials at Marshall University’s Rahall Transportation Institute and would look at the entire region from a manufacturing perspective.
Two city commissioners raised concerns the city’s own economic development director, Chris Pullem, wasn’t involved in the project and wasn’t aware of it.
“Our economic development director should be knowledgeable about these things. That is his department. It’s crucial to know what is going on,” said Commissioner Cheryl Spriggs.
“Our economic development department should be involved with all initiatives with economic development, whether it be local or Tri-State,” agreed Brown, adding, “I’m in full support of Tri-State economic development.”
The commission then voted 5-0 to approve signing the letter.
Moments later officials tabled a similar request to allow Charles to sign a letter to Larry Hayes, the secretary of the Cabinet for Economic Development, from Ashland Alliance President Bill Hannah.
The two-page letter was an economic update describing activities including companies the Alliance had been working with and partnerships they had formed among officials representing different counties, cities and even sites.
Brown said his problem was officials didn’t have time to “study” the letter because it was placed on the consent agenda late in the day and sent by email. Spriggs agreed.
“I don’t know what this is?” said Commissioner Kevin Gunderson.
“What is this committing us to? Is it costing us anything?” asked Brown.
“No,” Charles said, explaining the two-page letter did nothing more than describe the joint efforts and activities of the area for economic development to the state’s director.
“It’s just describing to the state what Boyd and Greenup, and all these folks that are on here, are doing, acting as a region,” said Charles. “It’s time we come together as a region.”
“Why is the Ashland Alliance not here representing it?” questioned Brown.
“Tell the Ashland Alliance to get down here,” said Gunderson.
The letter, written by Ashland Alliance President Bill Hannah, had already been signed by a host of regional leaders including William “Bud” Stevens, judge-executive of Boyd County; Bobby Carpenter, judge-executive of Greenup County; Sherry McDavid, the director of FIVCO Area Development District; John McGinnis, the chairman of the Greenup / Boyd County Riverport Authority, and Nickie Smith, chairman of EastPark, along with Hannah and Jeff Elswick, the Ashland Alliance chairman. It was awaiting signatures from Charles and Dan Huffman, the chairman of the Woodlands Foundation.
The following Thursday, Hannah was present and spoke for approximately 45 seconds about the letter.
“This is just a cooperation letter,” he said.
Hannah said he met with Cabinet officials weeks back and Hayes had requested “notification that this whole area is working together on economic development.”
“I fully support that,” said Brown, adding, “I think you need to work with our economic development department. We need jobs.”
Commissioners then approved signing the letter 5-0.
“We are working together,” said Hannah, following the meeting. “It’s imperative and we have plenty of work to share.”
For example, the small retailers and businesses needed to fill empty downtown storefronts or restaurants that want to locate at the Ashland Town Center are more appropriate projects for Pullem, while a large manufacturer evaluating the Tri-State for a site is better suited to Hannah.
Prospective industries, Hannah explained, don’t look at just one city or one county as a potential site. “They look at an entire region,” he said. “Whether we present ourselves that way or not, that is how they are coming to us and that is why it is so important, in my opinion, and in a lot of people’s opinion, that we sell ourselves as a region.”
For example, Charles said, the city of Ashland does not have thousands of acres available, making the prospect of a large manufacturing facility, like a Toyota plant, locating within the city minimal.
But if a suitable location could be found in a surrounding area, the city is more likely to attract a smaller supply industry, he said.
“We have to think about these concepts and make them work,” Charles said.
“For any economic development, I’m for Ashland first but I think you have to think larger than that. Your concepts have to be bigger than that. We are competing with every city in the nation on a lot of things. I think it is imperative that we start marketing ourselves and working together,” said Charles.
“I think we’re doing it. We have a sense of urgency that we need to be further down the road than we are in our regional effort,” said Hannah. “That isn’t a negative, that is just work left to complete. But I do believe we are headed the exact right way.”
Projects like the regional study on manufacturing, he said, will go a long way to help.
CARRIE STAMBAUGH can be reached at (606) 326-2653 or by email@example.com