The role of the Port Authority

The other day at a meeting a participant asked, “What does the Port Authority do?” My first reaction was one of indignation even resentment. It was like “how dare you” or “exactly what rock did you crawl out from under”. It was a total loss of humility and assumption of unwarranted arrogance moment.

I fumbled for an answer which basically came down to a not very enlightening “lots of stuff”. Regaining my composure a little, I said, “We respond to the needs of those who create wealth in the greater community”. Still fairly nebulous but it sounded essential and necessary.

Having some time to think about my lame description of Port Authority activities, I realize we sometimes take for granted what we do and we aren’t really good at self-promotion. We are fortunate to work in a community where, for the most part, the Port Authority is appreciated and recognized.

The success Washington County has achieved through the Port Authority is due to an active and energetic Board of Directors who don’t hesitate to get involved in activities that advance the mission and vision of the Southeastern Ohio Port Authority which are, in short, to enhance the County’s competitive economic edge.

In the classroom, I often use a text which used to be used in OSU’s Regional Development Program. The book talks about the various types of developmental planning and suggests that communities engage in different varieties depending on their confidence level and culture. The categories enumerated ranged from reactive through contingency and impact planning to the apex of the discipline strategic. Basically, they help us evaluate whether we are oriented toward a defensive posture or organized to allocate our scarce resources in a proactive or coactive manner.

In the same volume, there is something called a typology of communities. References are made to locales or organizations which are entrepreneurial or maybe coordinators, stimulators or facilitators or programs or projects deemed by the community to be worthwhile catalysts for value creation.

Having been around the Port Authority since the beginning and advising the County Commission as to the benefits accruing from such an organization, as well as, observing its progress and resiliency, I can pretty safely say that our Port Authority is in the “all of the above category” regarding any description of our modus operandi. We can also say with some accuracy that some things undertaken by the Port have been ultra-successful, some moderately so and a few have left us scratching our collective heads. But, there has been no time when the Port has not tried to make things better.

Certainly, in the broadest sense, everything we do in the development arena is a reaction to the need to progress, to enhance the opportunity to add opportunity and improve the quality of living and the number of choices available to our people.

Certain things in which the Port has been, or is, involved truly stand out as innovative or even one of a kind. The sale of the Reno Tree Farm immediately resonates as does involvement with the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport. Even the construction of the Ingenuity Center, while not unusual for many development organizations, opens up a new avenue for Washington County.

When you look into the details, however, some of the Port’s greatest moments have come from smaller, although far from simple, projects such as the retrofitting of the Bartlett School or the location of a site for Orion’s lab in Belpre. The Good River Water Distribution System and the Two Rivers Development on Greene Street in Marietta are recognized for their complexity and their ambition respectively. There is also great value in small grants for access roads and drainage projects which facilitate private investment, as well as, support for projects which stimulate downtown, encourage investment in the oil and gas renaissance, and/or complement the basic economic development potential inherent in the tourism industry.

The credibility and visibility of the Port Authority achieves regional recognition when the State’s Third Frontier program asks the Port Authority staff to administer the popular internship program which results in the Washington County Port sponsoring aspiring workers in ten counties of eastern Ohio. Closer to home, the Port Authority assisted in capital re-formation at the Marietta Memorial Health System which will result in optimal investments in the breadth and depth of quality health care.

In summary, each community’s development process represents the uniqueness and individuality of its culture and aspirations. Ours is multi-faceted representing a diverse and evolving economy.

I have also been thinking about an article that was written some months ago describing and decrying the lack of ethnic diversity in the communities of the Ohio Valley. There is no question that this lack of diversity is an impediment to development and creates obstacles for those charged with the responsibility to attract qualified employees to the area.

To those who might be inclined to think that this failing is somehow the product of the current generation or their progenitors, I might suggest that they look a little deeper into the cause and the result. Back in the days prior to our Civil War, people seeking the freedom they had once enjoyed, escaped from the more restrictive geography of then Virginia. They were aided by the second generation of the adventurers who settled our part of Ohio, most of whom came west with the blood of freedom and the courage of convictions firmly established.

The freedom seekers would have been unfortunate indeed if they had tarried along the Ohio’s shores and awaited the men with horses and guns who sought their re-confinement. They were aided by the local freedom lovers who abetted their journeys to safety further north. These virtuous mothers and fathers of Ohio sacrificed modern day diversity and exported a work force which eventually helped to satisfy the labor needs of the great industrial centers of Cleveland, Detroit and Toledo among many others.

So when those far afield criticize our perceived lack of inclusiveness, I recommend they substitute a little investigative diligence for knee jerk ignorance.

Terry Tamburini is Executive Director of the Southeast Ohio Port Authority.