Steubenville, Jefferson County poised for an upswing: panel

Panelists at the Pittsburgh Business Times Corridors of Opportunity event Wednesday in Wintersville, Ohio, were (from left): Ed Looman, Eastern Ohio project manager of the Appalachian Partnership for Economic Growth; Rich DeLuca, president of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce; Evan Scurti, director of economic development at the Jefferson County Port Authority; and Pittsburgh Business Times Publisher Alan Robertson, who moderated the panel.

Steubenville and Jefferson County, Ohio, may not be seeing the large Utica Shale-related growth of neighboring counties, but they’re on the cusp of big things.

That’s the message from economic development officials who spoke at the Pittsburgh Business Times’ Corridors of Opportunity: Jefferson County event held Wednesday afternoon at the St. Florian Hall in Wintersville, about five miles west of Steubenville.

“The timing is great, because there is a lot of opportunity in our area,” said Evan Scurti, director of economic development of Jefferson County Port Authority, an agency that began in 2012.

One driving factor: growth in the Utica Shale, primarily in neighboring counties with more wet gas than Jefferson County. Still, Steubenville and the surrounding area are seeing a dramatic increase in business activity due to the natural-gas industry, particularly from fracking companies and other service firms that have set up shop because of the Ohio River frontage and proximity to Utica wells.

“It’s brought to us some activity we’re not accustomed to seeing” in the region, said Ed Looman, Eastern Ohio project manager for the Appalachian Partnership for Economic Growth. That not only includes investments from oil and natural gas companies but also billions of dollars expected to flow to local landowners from shale and service companies.

And then there’s the ethane cracker plants that, if built, are poised to remake not only southwestern Pennsylvania but also the northern panhandle of West Virginia and eastern Ohio. Royal Dutch Shell and Odebrecht, two large multinational corporations, are deciding whether to build crackers in Beaver County, Pa., and Parkersburg, W. Va., which is about 60 miles south of Steubenville along the Ohio River. At least one and perhaps two others are being considered for eastern Ohio, Looman said.

“It [the shale play] really represents our future,” Looman said.

One challenge: the lack of pad-ready sites. Scurti said the region was working to address it, and needed help from developers in the Pittsburgh region and elsewhere. That’s a big opportunity, said Looman and Scurti.

But even with the potential for a resurgence in manufacturing and the shale activity, panelists freely admitted that Steubenville and Jefferson County have seen better days. The county’s population is about 69,000, down significantly from 99,000 50 years ago. Rich DeLuca, president of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, said that there needs to be an attitude among county residents to create opportunities, including in restaurants and small service businesses.

Steubenville, sometimes known as the “Burb of the Burgh,” is only about 40 miles from Pittsburgh. The panelists discussed the natural barrier between the Pittsburgh region and Steubenville: the Ohio River, and said for too long it has been a challenge to regional cooperation and economic development.

“The Ohio River is not the Great Wall of China,” said Looman.

DeLuca agreed.

“It’s not an impenetrable barrier,” he said.

They talked of the tri-state cooperation that has been going on in recent years, including the Allegheny Conference on Community Development’s Power of 32 initiative and the ShaleNet workforce training initiative. Eastern Ohio, southwestern Pennsylvania and the northern panhandle of West Virginia, share concerns, they said, including pad-ready sites and workforce development.

“There are a lot of opportunities for us to work together,” DeLuca said.

The next five years are going to be crucial for the development of the Upper Ohio Valley, said Looman.

“Five years ago, things were pretty bad … [but] we’ve advanced to the point where a lot of the counties I work in haven’t been able to keep up with the growth,” he said. “Five years from now, I think it [economic activity] will be even bigger.”

From Pittsburgh Business Times

, Digital Producer- Pittsburgh Business Times

Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Business Times