Larry Merry: Being ‘real’ is the best approach to economic development

ST. CLAIRSVILLE – Larry Merry said he is compelled to “be real” in every aspect of his life – and that includes advocating for the PTT Global Chemical America ethane cracker plant planned for Dilles Bottom as part of his role with the Belmont County Port Authority.

Merry raises his hands and gestures with air quotes when referring to his position as “executive director” of the port authority, noting that all he ever really wanted to be was a dairy farmer. A native of Muskingum County, that agricultural career path led him to elected office when he decided at age 27 to “kind of protect my neighbors’ interests” by being elected a township trustee. From there, he was appointed as a Muskingum County commissioner in 1992 to fill a vacancy on the board; in 1996, he was elected to that seat. He left that position to become the executive director of the Zanesville-Muskingum Port Authority, where he helped bring investment to the region in the form of an AutoZone distribution center, as well as developments by Dollar General, Haliburton, Avon and Bimbo Bakeries USA.

Merry had agreed to work for the ZMPA for a year, but time got away from him. After a decade in that job, Merry said he became “wore out, burned out” and had health issues, so he stepped down and returned to doing what he loved.

A little over a year later, Belmont County leaders approached him, asking if he would helm a port authority there. Eventually, he said, he agreed that he would come to St. Clairsville to interview the county commissioners – not the other way around. Once he established that their goals were realistic and explored the area, he decided to take the executive director’s position there, thinking he would do the job for two or three years. That was well over a decade ago.

“I love this community,” Merry said earlier this month from his office inside a repurposed church behind the Belmont County Courthouse. “I love the authenticity of this community, the ethnic pride, the festivals, the history that’s here.”

Two men who have worked with Merry on the PTTGCA project for years say he is, indeed, “real” about everything that comes his way.

Dan Williamson, PTTGCA’s Columbus-based spokesman, said he only knows Merry through his connection with the cracker project. But he said Merry has been one of the most consistent county officials interested in the development from its earliest days. That is not the case at most levels, he said. Three different men held the county’s commission seats at the project’s inception, and the effort has seen “a lot of different folks involved,” including two governors, an evolving congressional delegation, the creation of JobsOhio and three different presidential administrations and their energy departments.

“Larry has been there since the beginning,” Williamson said. “He is not elected. He cares about economic development and the progress of the region. He advocates for this project only because he believes it will be good for the region. It’s our job to advocate for it. His job is to advocate for the region and its quality of life.”

Williamson said when Merry talks about the proposed cracker, he “gets fired up about it. He truly believes it will be transformative … down to his bones.” He called Merry an “eternal optimist about it” and “one to always look on the bright side.”

But, Williamson noted, Merry is not one to offer blind support to PTTGCA or any new development. He said Merry makes sure the Ohio Valley gets a seat at the table when it comes to planning new projects, and he raises important issues, asks questions and can form a strong opinion about anything.

“I’m terribly glad that he’s on our side,” Williamson added.

Mike Chadsey, director of public relations for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, has worked with Merry indirectly on the PTTGCA project, but also knows him as a member of the OOGA board, where he holds the landowners’ seat.

“Larry Merry has done more for oil and gas on accident than most people have on purpose,” Chadsey said. “He is an advocate and an ambassador.”

Chadsey agreed that Merry wants to be fully informed before making a decision. He said Merry is not afraid to stop, think things through and ask tough questions. He cited issues such as the impact heavy truck traffic and injection wells might have on local communities as issues Merry has raised and debated.

“He holds us accountable,” Chadsey said of Merry’s expectations for the oil and gas industry. “He holds us to a high stand. We have had some tough conversations where he said, ‘This what I expect.’ He’s someone I have come to rely on because … he shoots straight.”

In addition to his work in Belmont County and on his farm, Merry gives his time and talent to other areas as well. Chadsey said he has helped Noble County with economic development efforts, and he still lends a hand in Muskingum County.

“If you call him for help, he will be at your door the next day,” Chadsey noted.

Chadsey pointed out that shale development in Eastern Ohio is about 10 years old. And he said Merry has a variety of firsthand experience with the industry, having gas and oil wells on his own Muskingum County farm, pipelines on his property and injection wells right down the road.

According to Chadsey, the industry is now in its “asset buildout phase” in the local region. It is something that is no longer “new and shiny,” but efforts are underway to “keep it going, keep people informed, keep them engaged.” He believes Merry has a role to play in that future.

“I envision him being that guy, that ambassador who won’t lose sight of what is happening here … ,” Chadsey said. “Larry’s a good guy.”

Away from work, Merry has many interests and passions. He is a self-described “news junkie” and a fan of the Ohio State Buckeyes, the Pittsburgh Steelers, baseball, wildlife and, most of all, his family. His office is filled with keepsakes, mementos and photographs of loved ones.

Merry said he was “in the right line when they were passing out parents.” He said he was blessed to have a “tremendous mother” and “the smartest person I have ever known” in his father, who was a dairy farmer before him.

Merry has “four great kids and seven grandkids” with hopes that one or two more might come along. Three of his sons live within eyesight of his home, and one of them now does the majority of the heavy lifting on the farm.

“In life, I have been a very lucky person to have great people willing to spend their time with me,” Merry said.

And as a baseball fan, he truly believes the saying from the film “Field of Dreams” that “if you build it, they will come.”

“You can tie that to almost anything that you do,” he said. “As a port authority, you don’t just build an industrial park. You try to build a community that can sustain itself. Housing, retail … are all needed for a community to be a success.

“There isn’t a win every day,” he continued. “You don’t win them all. It’s very, very competitive.”

Merry noted that businesses need help to get established so that they can contribute to a community.

“The only job government can create is another government job,” he said. “We’ve got to create an environment where businesses can be successful. Creating bureaucracy almost makes that impossible. A port authority can help lead businesses through the maze.”

Regarding PTTGCA, Merry said it makes sense to welcome a project that will use the raw materials that are beneath our feet to create valuable products fight here at home. He believes the cracker will create hundreds of permanent jobs itself, and it will attract other manufacturers to the region. If that comes to fruition, it will also help stop people from leaving the Ohio Valley in search of better jobs and better lives, he said. If that happens, he said, the future of Eastern Ohio is very bright.

“The Ohio Valley’s greatest export over the last 30 years has been its youth,” Merry said. “I’m trying desperately to change that. … We’ve got to quit forcing young people to leave to make a living. …

“I don’t get in the game if I don’t have my heart in it,” he added, noting that he can become emotional about projects he works on. “If we get the cracker, that will be crying time for Larry Merry.”