County looking to take advantage of economic opportunities

LISBON – Eleven years after the Columbiana County’s economic development director’s position was eliminated due to lack of funding, county commissioners are preparing to bring it back.

Commissioners reported at this past week’s meeting they intend to fill the position as early as next week since they have the extra money to do so, thanks in part to the money from the county’s share of the state casino tax.

The position was eliminated in 2002 by the former board of commissioners because it was no longer paying for itself in the form of state and federal grants being obtained by the director. This left only the office staff of Pam Dray and Marie Cox to seek and administer grants, and Cox retired several years ago but continued to work part time.

Dray is now preparing to retire Sept. 30 after 25 years, and Commission Chairman Mike Halleck said now is the ideal time to restructure operations and reinstate the director position to help the county take advantage of the economic development opportunities expected to result from the shale gas boom underway in the region.

“There’s a lot of exciting things going to happen in the county over the next five to 10 years, and you need a sharp person to help us take advantage,” he said.

Commissioners said they have been contemplating reviving the development department by naming a director and have been working on a job description and even individually talked to some people interested in the position, but declined to identify them. Halleck indicated they may choose someone without formally seeking applicants.

“I’ve always been a believer in seeking out the best and brightest the county can afford,” Halleck said.

This is the same approach taken by commissioners when they filled the vacant county Emergency Management Agency position by recruiting a specific candidate for the job rather than choose from the list of applicants.

Halleck said for too many years the county has been “reactive instead of proactive” when it comes to economic development. Commissioners want the new director to actively look for new companies to bring to the county and help existing businesses that are in trouble or wanting to expand.

They also want the director to work with other local development organizations to eliminate duplication of effort. “There has to be some coordination with other agencies. There is often more than one agency from the county competing for the same grant,” Halleck said.

The new director will also be available to assist smaller communities who lack the manpower to seek grants and loans on their own. “We’d like to see a development department that can work with every village and township to address their problems,” he said.

Once commissioners provide the up-front money to hire the director, the plan is for this person to obtain enough grants to pay for the future salary and benefits of the director and office staff.

The decision also comes at a time when commissioners are contemplating building a new development office at the site of the yet-to-be razed former county welfare office building. Commissioners have also asked the county Port Authority to consider moving into the new building as a way to help coordinate efforts with the new development office.