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ODOT Seeking to Give Up Operation of I-70 Tourist Center

October 14, 2012
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

Belmont County tourism officials will be presented with a proposal for taking over ownership and staffing of the Travelers Information Center on I-70 west of St.Clairsville from the Ohio Department of Transportation.

It is the second such meeting ODOT has held in recent weeks with the idea of turning over operation of the centers to county tourism organizations. At an earlier meeting with tourism officials in Ashtabula, ODOT officials stated they are "in the business of building bridges and roads and are seeking to get out of the tourism business."

Belmont County tourism director Eugene "Doc" Householder said he would be in favor of such a move "if we can work out a reasonable agreement. I'd be all for it if it was not too costly."

As it is now, Householder noted that operational costs, in particular the salaries for staffing the center, would be more than the council's budget could handle in view of the other financial commitments that have been made over the years.

"If they (ODOT officials) make an affordable proposal we'll consider it. We'll just have to wait and see what they have in mind." At the Ashtabula meeting it was noted the present TIC employees would be transferred to other ODOT positions. That would leave local officials to arrange staffing of the TICs. In that case Householder said the council could arrange its own staffing.

Making the trip to the county for the Oct. 26 meeting will be Michael Cope, assistant ODOT director, and Dave Coyle, deputy director of facilities for ODOT. In an email to the local tourism office, ODOT noted the officials "would like to meet to discuss the future of this TIC (modernization, staff, ownership, etc.) and how the chamber of commerce, tourism council, etc. in Belmont County feel about changes that may come." Barbara Roby of the Barnesville Area Chamber of Commerce is also being invited to the session.

Cope and Coyle conducted the Ashtabula meeting, where they revealed ODOT's desire to get out of the tourism business. Mark Winchell, executive director of the Ashtabula CVB, informed the local council that "they are not planning on closing the TIC's but they are looking to reduce the workforce at the TICs by offering the current workers other positions within ODOT."

Winchell added the two officials expressed the hope that "in the next 15-18 months all tourism workers would be out of the TICs." And they noted that "locals know more about the local region than ODOT employees."

Belmont County's TIC is a very busy place. During the first seven months of this year, more than 55,000 tourists stopped there for some reason. July was the busiest of those seven months with 11,727 visitors followed closely by June when 10,356 individuals stopped there. The July figure averages out to a daily turnout of 378.

Fire departments in Belmont County receive recognition for the successful battles they wage when a fire or other emergency erupts. But some of them are facing a losing battle in keeping up with the times on financial support from the areas they service.

Three departments - St. Clairsville, Wolfhurst and Shadyside - are seeking to correct that deficiency by asking voters in their districts to approve replacement levies which would provide them funds based on the current property valuations and not those that in some cases were in effect more than 25 years ago. Replacement levies are not new levies.

Twenty-nine years ago the Pease-Colerain Fire District, which is served by the Wolfhurst Volunteer Fire Department, was formed and voters approved a 3-mill levy to finance it.

That levy produced approximately $50,000 annually and it is still producing the same amount of money as it did in 1983 even though property valuations have shown appreciable increases since then. The same levy, if the replacement is approved on Nov. 6, would provide the department with Maintaining and upgrading existing equipment as well as having two paid emergency medical technicians on hand daily will be the key uses for the additional funds by the Wolfhurst department, in addition to recruiting and training additional volunteer firefighters. At one time the department had a 50-member volunteer force but that number has dwindled to 24.

A 5-mill replacement levy is also being sought by the Cumberland Trail Fire District that serves St. Clairsville and Richland Township. It would replace a 3-mill levy passed in 1989 and a 2-mill levy passed in 1998."The replacement levy would allow the district to receive five mills based on current property valuation instead of the 1989 and 1998 valuation as is the case today," explained Fire Chief Ken Saffell. The replacemnt levy would produce $1.6 million a year, compared to $956,000 under the 2-mill levy.

"It is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a high level of quality service when our funding is based on 1989 and 1998 valuations," Saffell added. Besides being shortchanged over the years from the property valuations, Saffell noted the CTFD "has sustained major revenue losses exceeding $180,000 annually due to the loss of personal property tax, deregulation and most recently a State of Ohio budget cut that resulted in the loss of a prison service contract." If approved, Saffell plans to hire three full-time personnel - one for each of the day, afternoon and midnight shifts - worked by his staff. The department is maintained by 17 full-time and 6 part-time personnel.

Another use for the additional funds provided by the replacement levy if approved is for equipment. "We have planned for almost $1.6 million in equipment purchases that will be needed for the next five years. These include the re chassis of two ambulances," Saffell noted. A 27-year-old fire engine also needs to be replaced at a cost of $450,000 to $600,000.

"It is so very important to provide quality service to our district residents," Saffell declared. "We are very cognizant of the tough economic times that everyone faces on a daily basis and would not make the request unless absolutely necessary."

At the present time the Shadyside Volunteer Fire Department is financed by a 2-mill levy that was passed in 1996. Because of a continually declining number of volunteer firemen coupled with an increasing work load brought on by a spike in the number of emergency calls, an effort is being pushed to create a fire district encompassing Shadyside and Mead Township with a paid personnel to bolster the volunteer staff.

To finance the new OR&W Fire District, Shadyside voters are being asked to approve a 4-mill replacement levy, which would provide sufficient funds to hire paid part-time personnel to be on hand at the fire department throughout the day since the big majority of their calls come during those hours. If approved by voters, the 4-mill levy would replace the 2-mill levy. If the replacement levy fails to get voter approval the two mill levy will remain in effect.

One other fire department, Smith Township, has had a 4-mill levy in effect for several years and is asking voters to renew it for another five-year period.

Belmont County voters will have the opportunity to meet, talk to and question candidates in the Nov. 6 general election at any one or all three "Meet the Candidates" sessions to be held at three different venues in the county this week.

The first session to which all loal candidates have been invited is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Martins Ferry High School cafetorium.

On Wednesday a candidates' forum will be held at 6 p.m. at the Bellaire Public Library under the sponsorship of the Bellaire Chamber of Commerce. Chamber officials note that each of the candidates for Belmont County commissioner, Western Division Court judge and sheriff will have the opportunity to speak for a few minutes before answering questions from those attending.

The St. Clairsville Area Chamber of Commerce will hold a similar session at 6 p.m. Thursday, co-sponsored by Belmont College for all local, state and federal candidates. It will be held at Belmont College's Horizon Hall. Chamber officials are looking for a good turnout of members and the general public but seating will be limited to the first 200 attendees.

Al Molnar can be reached via email at:

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