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Regional Impact Ohio conference explores economic development

Published By The Logan Daily on November 23, 2021
Jay Edwards In The News

NELSONVILLE - Elected officials, regional leaders and business owners met at Stuart’s Opera House on Friday, Nov. 19 at Impact Ohio’s 2021 Southeast Regional Conference, to discuss regional jobs and economic development.

According to an Impact Ohio brochure, The Success Group, a “public affairs and lobbying firm,” founded the Impact Ohio organization in 1984. Since then, it has offered one-day conferences “to explore elections, the outcomes of the political process, and policy choices facing Ohio and its communities.”

Speakers, moderators and panelists included state Rep. Jay Edwards (R-Nelsonville), who represents Ohio House District 94, which consists of Meigs County and portions of Athens, Vinton, and Washington counties; Auditor of State Keith Faber; Secretary of State Frank LaRose; Buckeye Hills Regional Council Development Director Sam Miller; Governor’s Office of Appalachia Director Jon Carey; state Rep. Jason Stephens (R-Getaway), who represents Ohio House District 93 which consists of Jackson and Gallia counties and portions of Lawrence and Vinton counties; Ohio University President Hugh Sherman; Steve Evans, son of restaurateur Bob Evans and founder of Steve Evans Country Sausage; and more.

The conference consisted of three main discussion panels; the first discussed the region’s “workforce ecosystem.” The panel covered various topics ranging from workforce development to access to transportation. The panel agreed that the region, as well as the entire country, is suffering from an apparent labor shortage.

According to Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED), as of September Hocking County had an unemployment rate of 4.5%. Per U.S. Census Bureau data, 15% of the county’s population (28,050 as of April 2020) lived in poverty and the county’s average median household income was $52,363 from 2015-2019.

Additionally, southeast Ohio is home to some of the state’s lowest-income and most poverty-stricken counties, including Athens, which has the state’s highest poverty rate at 26.6% per U.S. Census Bureau data.

According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), “southeast” Ohio consists of Athens, Belmont, Coshocton, Gallia, Guernsey, Hocking, Jackson, Lawrence, Meigs, Monroe, Morgan, Muskingum, Noble, Scioto, Perry, Pike, Vinton and Washington counties.
Edwards talked about preparing the region for “tomorrow’s jobs;” however, “Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury right now. Because we have such a shortage in the workforce that we have to train people for the jobs today.”

When asked what “tomorrow’s jobs” may be in the region, the panel agreed that they will be “regionally driven,” ranging from manufacturing jobs and automotive work, to healthcare and broadband development.

Edwards also touched on the importance of community college in the region. One question asked if the Ohio legislature is looking to cut costs for students in community college education; Edwards said yes, though “it’s really tough to do.”

“We’re constantly looking at ways of alleviating costs, as the state already provides a ton of money for alleviating costs for financial needs-based kids at school,” Edwards said. “It’s tough to provide that money for everything and everyone, especially (if) there might be some people that don’t need it that don’t need the help that can afford to pay for it. So it’s really tough to provide free education across the board. It really cuts into some of the other services that the state provides.”

Apropos of education, Auditor of State Keith Faber briefly touched on College Credit Plus (CCP), a free program which allows students in grades seven through 12 to earn college and high school credits simultaneously through Ohio colleges or universities.

“To me, CCP is the great equalizer,” Auditor Faber said. “It is an opportunity for kids who want to learn that they can do it... The reality is if kids get through a CCP class, they (learn) that they can handle (college-level material).”

Locally, Faber said that OU faculty told him a couple years ago that the average incoming freshman who received CCP credit stacks up as a sophomore. “That means effectively we’ve taken one year of college away,” he said.

The Daily Yonder recently reported that college students from rural areas see roughly 60% more student debt than those from urban or suburban areas, per a recent The Ohio State University study.

According to, the average federal student loan debt is $36,510 per borrower and for private student loan debt, $54,921 per borrower; a total 45.3 million borrowers have student loan debt, and 95% of borrowers have federal loan debt.

Faber said the state estimates that Ohio families are saving almost one billion dollars per year on tuition and fees through CCP credits. Statewide, CCP receives a “hit-or-miss” reception among school districts, he explained.

“My superintendent says it’s not because he doesn’t want to, it’s because he can’t get his union to buy into it,” Faber said.

Faber added that the Ohio legislature is currently considering legislation to “allow districts to treat Advanced Placement classes and College Credit Plus classes differently for the purposes of giving credit towards academic grade points.” Faber voiced opposition to this decision.

LaRose spoke on record-breaking statewide voter turnout and business registration; however, he gave no specific examples regarding instances of either in southeast Ohio.

LaRose did touch on several statewide initiatives, including “Grads Vote Ohio,” which sends voter registration packets to graduating high school seniors each year; online voter registration; voter registration at craft breweries, barber shops and beauty salons; 24/7 voting drop boxes (one per each board of elections office); extended early voting hours; and an ongoing legislative effort to automatically register people to vote when they receive a license at the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV).

The second panel discussed ecotourism in southeast Ohio and briefly touched on tourism in the Hocking Hills, which sees millions of visitors each year and continues to grow in its popularity. The Hocking Hills region is particularly popular among people in northeast Ohio, Glenn Cobb of the ODNR, said.

The second panel also included Jesse Powers, executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Council of Appalachia, or ORCA, a council of governments that is managing the development of the Baileys Trail System in Athens County.

The Baileys Trail System will be an 88-mile long mountain bike optimized trail system, making it “the longest continuous strip mountain bike trail system east of the Mississippi River.”

When asked how an economy that relies on outside interests can serve the region long term, Powers cited a 2018 OU “feasibility analysis” that projected economic impacts at $40 million, increased spending $10 million in new wage growth and 78 new jobs after the trail system is completed.

The trail system will encourage “stewardship and (make) folks here realize that this is an opportunity for them, Powers said; its benefits are “seemingly endless.”

“This is an opportunity for their children and for generations to come,” Powers said. “That’s going to contribute to quality of life and new businesses and new job opportunities right in their backyard.”

A pressing issue in Hocking County and the region, broadband internet access came up during the ecotourism panel, as it would be a resource for visitors and “communication,” as Rep. Stephens put it.

The third panel largely focused on small business resources for firms in southeast Ohio. Kristi Tanner, senior managing director of JobsOhio, said that the Ohio Department of Development still has $200 million available in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for small businesses that lost revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“These are grants of 10, 20 and $30,000. And they can’t get rid of the money — there’s still money that’s available for companies,” Tanner said.

“Primarily, those really impacted; so restaurants, tourist-related industry or businesses that were impacted, as long as there was a (demonstrated) loss in revenue in 2020.”

Tanner stressed that beyond the state level, small business owners can find resources in their communities, too, such as in “local economic development professionals, (your) local chamber of commerce, your attorney, your lawyer, your accountant, your banker.”

Tanner echoed Rep. Edwards in previous comments he made about how the region works “in silos.”

“Everybody’s focused on what their business and their opportunity is; I don’t think often enough we come together like we were able to today,” Edwards said during the first panel.

Appalachian identity was another subject that came up during panelists’ discussions. Rep. Edwards spoke on being seen as an “Appalachian” in the state legislature.

Edwards said he’s proud to be from Nelsonville and southeastern Ohio, though “some people might think that’s funny.” When asked if his reputation as an “Appalachian” comes with any baggage, he said yes.

“I think that there are some people that view that in a negative light, and I’m trying to change that,” Edwards said. “I’m not gonna hide where I’m from or be ashamed of it. But I do think that there might be some employers that maybe look at that (in) a negative light... If we change the way we view Appalachians, and we change employers’ ways of viewing Appalachians, there’s tons of opportunities here.”

During the third panel, which focused on small business development, Larry Kidd, president and CEO of :hire, a Jackson-based employment services company, said he went to work in California decades ago “to move as far away as I possibly could.”

Kidd said he stifled his accent while working in the West Coast and was “made fun of every single day, because I’m such a hick from Appalachia.” He later moved home and found that his work ethic overshadowed his background, he said.

“Then I moved back and started working and as you start working with other businesses and other people, they don’t really care. They’re looking for competency,” Kidd said. “As long as you know what you’re talking about, you understand your product or what you’re trying to sell them, at the end of the day, it doesn’t make any difference.”

Representing Logan in the conference crowd was Mayor Greg Fraunfelter. Fraunfelter told The Logan Daily News about some of his takeaways from the conference, especially its third and final panel.

“Seems like everything else — just the more information you get, the more things start to tie together as to what you can do,” Fraunfelter said. He added that he sees it as one of his responsibilities as an elected official to assist business with the knowledge he has — especially young, prospective entrepreneurs.

“One of the things we have to do is teach people how to use the city ordinances,” Fraunfelter said. “And (these) things (that) have to be done in the proper procedure. I guess that hasn’t been done in the past. So what I’m going to try to do is start putting things together and (teaching) people the proper procedures, so that they can at least follow procedures and understand what’s going on.”

In an email Monday, Impact Ohio Chief Executive Officer Jennifer L. Flatter said Impact Ohio was “excited to see so many people join us for the conference. It was wonderful to have such an engaged audience that asked important and thoughtful questions of our panelists and speakers.”

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