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County seeks grant for web-based communication system on drilling

March 5, 2012
By LINDA HARRIS - Business editor ( , The Herald-Star

STEUBENVILLE - As grant applications go, the one Jefferson County commissioners submitted two days ago to the Ohio Department of Development is modest: it's for $49,900, money they would use to develop a web-based communications system that would allow government leaders, school officials, industry and private citizens to share information and concerns as the shale oil and gas drilling industry picks up steam locally.

After just three meetings, the county's Oil and Gas Committee had identified the inability of stakeholders to communicate with each other as the most pressing, and yet most fixable, issue facing the community going forward.

And that, officials say, is what makes this grant application so very exciting and why they've tagged it Project Unite.

"It's our first effort at countywide collaboration, that's the exciting part to me, said Joy Howell, superintendent of Jefferson County Educational Services. "It's a collaboration of government agencies, the education community, including higher-ed - Franciscan University and Eastern Gateway Community College - the townships and villages, Jefferson County agencies associated with economic growth and quality of life, and some private businesses. It's a cross-section of the entire county."

The application, Howell says, represents "our first effort to collaborate and find common ground for looking at ways to share services, increase cost-efficiencies and effectiveness and really improve the quality of life for the citizens of Jefferson County."

County Commissioner Dave Maple, who has moderated the oil and gas meetings, said there's a sense of urgency within the committee, "to make sure we get something up and running as quickly as possible."

"There are a lot of probably for-profit type groups that are going to try and get out like they are a community resource," he said. "We've got nothing against that, but we don't want our citizens to think those sites are our (official) site."

Maple sees the grant as a great opportunity.

"I think we're in really good shape, we have really good justification to be awarded the grant," he said. "And we're very optimistic. But if, for some reason, we do not get it, I think we're still on a really good course regarding communicating and setting up some method for industry, private citizens and government to communicate on issues. This grant gives us the opportunity to do that, but if it falls through, we'll keep looking, keep working."

Jefferson County Regional Planning Commission Director Domenick Mucci Jr. said they received outstanding participation and cooperation from school districts and local government leaders.

"In fact, to accompany the grant, we had about 28 letters from townships, villages and cities in Jefferson County supporting Project Unite, and all five school districts," he said.

Mucci credited Howell and Jefferson County Educational Services with providing support throughout the grant application process, as well as Progress Alliance and Kim Cline, "who did a tremendous job of assisting and preparing the application so we would be able to submit it on behalf of the board of county commissioners."

If their application is funded, Mucci says they'll be able to tailor the website to local needs. They'll be able to get word out instantly when, say, rigs or water haulers will be moving into a specific region, necessitating the rerouting of school buses, or allow them to avoid a flood of calls to 9-1-1 operators when residents see something new, yet normal, like a flare burning at a website.

"There will be a host of ways people can communicate," he said. "There could even be a section where, if it's approved, citizens could express concerns. ... We'd be able to send out alerts, notices and general information, even links to job opportunities.

"We haven't really defined everything, but through our meetings we have an idea what needs to be in there," he said.

Ultimately, since it's a county grant, the county commissioners would have final say on what kinds of information are available through the website, though Maple said commissioners likely will be guided by what the oil and gas committee suggests.

Maple also said the letters of support submitted by the various townships, villages, cities, schools and from the private side sends a message to the grant committee that there's widespread support for the project, which is always a plus in the grant process.

Howell, meanwhile, said in this era of state and federal budget cuts, "the culture of collaboration that's evolving locally is something they can build on and use as a way to get the job done and improve the quality of life for all our constituents."

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