Belpre to hold economic development meeting

Photo Provided Dr. Jason Jolley, with Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, talks about the economic development study being conducted for Belpre at a March meeting in Belpre. A town hall meeting to unveil the plan will be 7 p.m. Thursday at the Belpre Senior Center.

BELPRE — For several months, Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs has been working with Belpre officials and the Belpre community to conduct a study on economic development for the Belpre area.

Voinovich School representatives will present the plan to the community during a town hall meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Belpre Senior Center on Washington Blvd. The meeting is open to all Belpre area residents.

The project is the result of a joint effort initiated by the Belpre Area Chamber of Commerce Economic Development Committee and the city of Belpre to provide a “road map” for the future of economic development in Belpre and surrounding areas.

The Chamber requested the Voinovich School study the Belpre area and produce a strategic plan for its economic future. The work began last November and ran for seven months. Demographic data, economic data, and population trends were among the many sources of information reviewed by the Voinovich School as it studied the Belpre area.

Faculty, staff and graduate students comprised the Voinovich School team who completed the project. As the study progressed, the team conducted visits to the area, numerous individual interviews with local businesses leaders and residents, and meetings with Chamber representatives and Belpre officials.

Karen Waller, the Belpre Chamber’s executive director, said the Chamber began the process because it believed there was a need for new information for use in business development, city planning and support of the current business community.

Through the process, she said the study looked at “what our strengths and weaknesses are, what our capacities are, what the voids are and try to put all that together into some information for us to use about currently where we are” and to provide recommendations for future action.

“What it will do is give us direction. What’s the first thing to do? What do we need to do next? What plans of action do we need to develop down the road?” she said.

“What we’re expecting is a couple of hard recommendations about where to start. What we know is one of the things is to continue to help small businesses stay strong. We know that and that’s kind of been our focus here anyway,” Waller said.

Areas like tourism are also expected to be highlighted and defined as possible areas of focus and growth.

“We don’t have one giant destination, but we have the (Ohio) River, we have a bike trail coming with the potential of bringing some commerce through here,” she said.

Waller said the plan is not likely to include anything regarding a big employer, but will hopefully provide advice on attracting small industry and light industry.

“Several entities that could employ 15 to 20 people would really fill a void,” she said.

Voinovich School professors Dr. Jason Jolley and Dr. Gilbert Michaud were co-principal investigators for the project.

Michaud said the goal for the June 22 meeting will be to deliver the final written report and present the findings to the community. It will include a depiction of the city’s economic/demographic conditions and community trends (e.g., age, educational attainment, household income, unemployment rates, employment by industry, school enrollments, commuter patterns, etc.), a cluster analysis to highlight regional industries worth targeting as development assets and a retail market analysis.

One of the most important parts of the report will be suggested strategies and implementation steps to stimulate economic development for Belpre, Michaud said.

“Most of the data, cluster/retail market analysis, etc., was already presented at our first community meeting back on March 23. Thus, we will probably gloss over these data and focus a majority of the meeting on the principal strategies for the future. A key one will be the beautification of the city and an enhanced utilization of the river as a natural asset,” he said.

“Belpre lacks a distinct ‘brand’ to differentiate itself in the region. We created a Buy Belpre branding campaign and logo,” Jolley said.

“The river is an underutilized asset in the city. We suggest the city focus on Civitan Park and the surrounding area with river access as a hub for festivals, recreation, tourism, and river-oriented businesses,” he said.

Both men were surprised at the high level of involvement and turnout they saw during the process, with around 80 people attending the first public meeting in March.

“There has been a strong, positive response from the Belpre community to this project,” Michaud said. “Not only did our initial public meeting exceed attendance expectations, but there has also been sustained participation and enthusiasm for the forthcoming economic development plan. This exemplifies the nature of the Belpre community and offers strong prospects for future decision making and implementation of the plan.”

“Belpre residents have a lot of pride in their community. We were impressed with the large turnout-roughly 80 people-at our community meeting. We expect another large crowd when we share our findings and recommendations,” Jolley said.

Funding for the project has been provided by the Appalachian New Economy Partnership and the U.S. Economic Development Administration University Center Rural University Consortium, both programs of the Voinovich School, with no cost to the city of Belpre.

The liaison committee from the City of Belpre and the Belpre Area Chamber of Commerce directly involved in this project since its beginning is composed of Belpre Mayor Mike Lorentz, Waller, BACC Economic Development Committee Chair Bob Rauch and, Chamber Board of Directors member Bob McCloy.