STEUBENVILLE - With their local government funding all but gone, the Community Improvement Corp. is looking to Jefferson County commissioners for guidance on when to pull the plug on Progress Alliance.
Progress Alliance, the public-private partnership formed 16 years ago to coordinate economic development efforts in the county, is being replaced by the newly formed Jefferson County Port Authority.
While they've known for months that Progress Alliance would be superfluous once the port authority was self-sustaining, the CIC and its partners - businesses from throughout the county that have historically matched government funding for Progress Alliance, dollar-for-dollar - have been taken aback by the speed with which that changeover is advancing.
Two weeks ago the county commissioners pledged $100,000 to the port authority - that's $25,000 more than they'd given the CIC in 2012 - and last week commissioners approved an application for a nonprofit designation that would allow businesses to make private donations to the port effort.
To date, no mention has been made of any county funding for Progress Alliance in 2013. That, coupled with fiscal problems that will force the city of Steubenville to cut funding for the organization from its 2013 budget, prompted members Tuesday to question whether it's time to discuss their "exit strategy."
The village of Wintersville reportedly also has balked at continuing its funding commitment for economic development because its interests aren't represented on the new port authority.
Chairman Bob Chapman said at Tuesday's meeting held at EM-media's Bella Hall that they have "a little over $100,000 in the bank," though some of that is encumbered. "We probably could operate through the first quarter" with no additional funding from the county, he said. "But there's collateral damage."
Already, Chapman said some new business investors have inquired about getting a refund, saying the changing landscape "isn't what we signed on for."
"(And) we have leases on equipment, we have a lease with the chamber for office space through the end of 2013 that we have to pay and, potentially, severance packages," he added. "So, somewhere in the first or second quarter we would have to pull the trigger and it would be done."
Chapman said the organization "needs to know what role we're going to be serving if we do get any funding," and in a Dec. 10 letter to commissioners he'd asked them for "a timetable ... for the transition of pending economic development projects to the Port Authority as well as turning over management of the Jefferson County Industrial Park (including the payment of monthly AEP bills), managing of the county's Revolving Loan Fund and the handling of the annual Tax Incentive Review Council meetings."
"The bottom line is, it's not about us," Chapman said. "It's about moving forward."
Commissioners responded to Chapman's letter by extending an invitation to the CIC executive committee to attend this week's county commission meeting "to discuss the information you pointed out in your letter." Committee members indicated they will attend the meeting, and hope to come back with the answers they need to proceed.
"I think it's wise that we go," Steubenville Mayor and Jefferson Regional Planning Director Domenick Mucci Jr. said. "It's important for us to get a full picture of where we're going."
Mucci said from the start they'd envisioned an orderly transition wherein, "we could have defined a role, if there was a role, for the CIC and Progress Alliance."
"That didn't pan out," he said. "It's moving much more quickly than anyone envisioned."
Mucci said a lot of the decision-making surrounding the port authority has been "fast-tracked."
"Maybe the bigger concern is not who we'll be in six months, but economic development in Jefferson County as a whole," Mucci said, adding that "it would be wise to listen" to what commissioners have to say Thursday. "We need to understand their vision of economic development and how we fit into it."
Others voiced concern with how development prospects perceive the current situation and said it behooves all involved to present a united front.
CIC Treasurer Ken Perkins said he's not interested in a public spectacle.
"We don't want what they have in (other counties), the Port Authority and CIC fighting," Perkins said. "I think we have to unite."
And board member Kyle Brown said from what's he's read, commissioners are still "going through the budget process" and said the CIC board needs to wait and hear what commissioners have in mind before doing anything. "We could still get funded, we could still have a purpose," Brown added. "That's what we asked them in our letter, for some direction.
"We just want to know what we're supposed to do with our staff - do we advertise for a new director, do we elevate our staff, does our staff even have a job or if we should prepare severance packages for them," Brown added.
Board member Jim Emmerling said the business community deserves credit for its willingness to shoulder a big part of the financial burden for encouraging business development in Jefferson County over the years.
"This organization got together about 20 years ago to get private investors to help this area, and I think we've done a damn good job," he said.
And at the partners' meeting, member Rich DeLuca reminded members they need to keep in mind "the big picture."
"(We have) a lot of opportunity for economic development," he said. "My concern is what image, what message, we're sending out" to prospects. DeLuca said they can't allow the situation to deteriorate "when there may be opportunities" to land more businesses and industries.
"There's a lot at stake at this point," DeLuca said.
CIC officers, meanwhile, pointed to the lengthy list of successes the Progress Alliance staff had scored over the past year: Through the end of November, the 30 projects completed in the 25-county Appalachian Partnership for Economic Growth region created 1,200 jobs and represented a $1.8 billion investment.
Ten of those projects were in Jefferson County.
"It speaks volumes for what we've been able to accomplish this year," said former Progress Alliance Executive Director Ed Looman, who resigned in November to take a job with JobsOhio as Eastern Ohio project manager. "None of it would have been possible without the support we've received from our public and private partners."
Looman also thanked the board and business partners for their support over the past 56 months.
"I've been involved with quite a few economic development organizations around the state," he said. "(This group) is light years ahead of counties its size in our region because of the support we've received not only from government, but also the private business sector. You should be extremely proud of what we've accomplished, what we've been able to accomplish because of the support you've given us."
(Harris can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)