STEUBENVILLE – Ask Aaron Dodds what he thinks of Ohio’s new Appalachian Community Grant program, and he’ll tell you it’s a unique opportunity, the kind of program that can transform communities, economies and entire regions .
It’s the kind of opportunity Dodds, projects manager for the Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District, says Jefferson County and its Appalachian neighbors can’t afford to miss.
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed into law Bill 377 last month, creating a $500 million funding pool for Buckeye State’s 32 Appalachian counties. Governor wants to use grants to develop transformation plans emphasizing downtown development; health care, such as investments in school or community services to ensure physical and behavioral health; or workforce development, including public-private partnerships to build and coordinate skills training.
DeWine said he wanted the projects to unite communities.
“It has to be a large-scale project, something transformative,” Dodds said. “Fixing a building may not be transformative, but fixing a city center can be. Or maybe a trail that crosses several communities. You can submit multiple projects, a series of projects that could be transformative and worth considering, or projects that could be paired with another project. Some of these projects might even cross county lines in Harrison, Carroll, or Columbiana counties, to help us get funding and do these things.
Dodds said any government entity — any village, town, or county in the Appalachian region — can apply for its own grant, “so theoretically Jefferson County could have a hundred submissions, requests for these funds, but the “One of the things they’re looking for because it’s regional scale and different entities working together, so if we can start with multiple entities working together, that will make our apps even more appealing.
“It’s kind of a unique opportunity that this funding is available, because infrastructure projects – broadband, roads, that kind of stuff – can’t be funded with this money. It opens up funds for those kinds of things, quality of life improvements that are going to be essential for that area. Since 1960, our population has decreased by 34%, and the strongest (demographic) growth is for those aged 65 and over – it has increased by 14%. I feel like we just went into survival mode. With this grant, we could start focusing on quality of life, maybe start transforming some of those demographics. »
To illustrate this point, JSWCD has prepared a brochure offering ideas for potential projects, including trails at Piney Fork and Short Creek; Quaker Ridge Arboretum and Nature Trails; waterfront development, including a convention center, courtesy docks and marina; cycling infrastructure; preserve a little-known Civil War battlefield at Salineville; and the preservation and promotion of Hellbender Preserve Park and Lincoln Bridge.
“There is a wide range of projects” Dodds said. “Some of those who get pushed around by other entities might be stronger if they’re associated with what the ground and water are working on – then we can create a project app together.”
He said the benefits of some projects could extend beyond county borders, such as with the Salineville Battlefield. “But something like that that would also reap rewards for the whole region,” he said.
Dodds said he was invited to the Governor’s mansion next week to meet DeWine.
“Our own project, the Hellbender Project, is one that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and several other entities have been pushing as a potential poster child,” he said. “It has trails, outdoor space, and cultural and historical significance to the point where I was invited to discuss it with the governor. The state takes note of the things we have discussed over the past few years, and hopefully this will give us a better opportunity to compete.
Dodds thinks it’s a chance to play on the rich history of the county – for example, George Washington surveying properties in the area, Mad Anthony Wayne, Colonel Crawford, Chief Logan and Morgan’s Raid.
“Many people don’t realize how beautiful and historically important this area is,” he said. “We have such a stigma with the Rust Belt, a lot of bad press coming out, but it’s such a small scale and it’s such a beautiful area with so many opportunities – we just need to look at it from the point from a stranger’s point of view and seize this opportunity.
“I don’t know how many children in Jefferson County learn that there is a bridge that Abraham Lincoln almost died on. He was on his way to the inauguration in 1861 and was riding through a violent storm when a sycamore fell and hit a wooden bridge. When he got to this point, the railroad signaled his train to stop because the bridge was compromised. The train was already late, so they came up with the idea to get all the passengers off the train and across the bridge Lincoln got off and was crossing, was talking to someone and slipped – it was probably a 40 foot fall into a raging stream so he dodged what would have was a footnote in the story. When he got to Steubenville, he gave a speech, and it was kind of a tryout for his inaugural speech.
Later, as war threatened, he said President Lincoln had signed an executive order to replace the wooden bridge he had fallen on.
“We need to preserve some of those stories, preserve places in history that Jefferson County has kind of lost,” he said. “The Ohio River was once the most important thing in Jefferson County – now people hardly recognize it. It was the heart and soul of the county.
So far, he said there was no limit to funding requests. Grants will likely be awarded in two rounds, with final awards to be announced on December 31, 2024. Funds must be spent by December 31, 2026.
“So it’s time to sit down and assess all the projects and figure out what to add to strengthen the case, do our due diligence and make the request,” he said. “From my perspective, this is one of the most critical things that has ever happened, especially for Jefferson County.
“Since the factories closed and the coal mines closed and much of the labor and life left the county, we went into survival mode. We made sure to balance our budgets and keep the water and the lights on, but it would allow us to reinvest in our riding as we did 100 years ago when it came to make it a place for families to live and grow. The state makes critical investments in communities, and it’s absolutely critical that Jefferson County make the best application we can submit and the best project so that we can capitalize as much money as possible through this grant,” Dodds added.
Jefferson County commissioners are working to form a committee of community leaders, he said, not to take over project selection, “but to help improve or complete projects to make them more competitive, (since) the more competitive they are, the more likely they are to be funded.”