DeWine’s leadership role with key Appalachian group welcome news around Ohio

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Just how important is the Appalachian Regional Commission?

There’s an old line that Andy Kuhn believes sums it all up: “A toilet doesn’t flush in rural America or rural Appalachia without ARC funds.”

That’s how critical the Commission is to infrastructure advancement, the executive director of the Southeastern Ohio Port Authority declared. It is big news for Kuhn’s agency and others like it that Gov. Mike DeWine now holds a leadership position with ARC.

The Commission is a federal-state partnership serving 13 states making up Appalachia. There is a federal co-chair, and DeWine is serving as the states’ co-chair in 2020. 

In a statement, DeWine said the opportunity “fits with Ohio’s collaborative approach to build on the region’s strengths and address its challenges.”

Among the responsibilities will be hosting ARC’s annual summit in Ohio later this year.

This announcement was met with approval by various economic development officials throughout Appalachian Ohio. In interviews with the Capital Journal, these officials cheered the potential for DeWine taking on a key role in an organization that has funded everything from sewer lines to hospitals in their communities. 

At the least, Kuhn said, this would build education and awareness across the Buckeye State: having the governor as co-chair would bring added understanding to communities on how they can access some of ARC’s sought after grant money. 

Why ARC is important

A water treatment plant in Wellston. Manufacturing equipment for Youngstown State University. 911 improvements in Pike County. 

ARC provides funding toward a wide variety of projects in Ohio each year. In Fiscal Year 2019, ARC distributed $12.3 million toward 31 projects, from sewer line work in Rutland to hospital equipment in Barnesville. The state of Ohio is among those which matches the federal dollars to provide further funding to these projects. 

“We’ve always appreciated the double benefit,” said Perry Varnadoe, director of the Meigs County Economic Development Office. 

Varnadoe can point to a number of ways ARC has benefited his county. Only a decade ago, Meigs lacked a 24-hour emergency room. That changed when ARC provided $250,000 in 2013 to equip and develop a new emergency room. 

Along with improving health care access, the clinic has provided jobs and “peace of mind” to the county, Varnadoe said. It opened in 2014 and now serves thousands of patients per year.

ARC was also instrumental in helping the county build a local satellite campus of Rio Grande Community College in Meigs County. Varnadoe credits the Commission along with the Governor’s Office of Appalachia in Ohio with helping make these projects possible.

“They are a wonderful lifeline for needed services in Meigs County,” he said, adding that he believes DeWine has shown a “real and genuine interest” in helping rural communities.

Governor’s Office of Appalachia in Ohio is led by John Carey, a former state legislator who once represented Southern Ohio. 

ARC recognizes 32 counties in Ohio as being located in Appalachia, and therefore eligible for grant funding. The Commission uses data to rate each county’s “economic status,” with those considered more in-need eligible for higher project funding amounts. 

Gary Arnett is the director of economic development in Pike County, which is designated as “At-Risk” ⁠— the second-lowest of the five levels. Arnett called ARC “a great tool for us” and said the biggest benefit has been in sewer expansions. These may not be the flashiest projects, but they provide tangible help to Ohio communities that perhaps couldn’t afford the infrastructure work otherwise. In one example, ARC gave $250,000 in 2012 for a sewer extension project which served dozens of Pike County homes with failing septic systems.

“I think it’d be a great benefit,” Arnett said of DeWine’s new leadership position. “He knows the area and knows what it needs.”

ARC often allocates money toward economic development projects. Matt Abbott, the executive director of the Zanesville-Muskingum County Port Authority, said ARC awarded funding for waterline extension and road replacement projects benefiting several industrial parks in the area. 

An added plus, Abbott said, is this frees up money to be spent on other local priorities.

“(ARC’s) been a great asset for us to defray some costs in other places,” Abbott said.

That was true down in Lawrence County along the Ohio River. ARC spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a traffic circle near an industrial park in South Point. Bill Dingus, executive director of the Lawrence Economic Development Corporation, credits the road improvements with allowing trucks to navigate the busy industrial park and access a nearby highway. 

“They’ve done many things,” Dingus said of ARC, adding that he hopes DeWine’s new position will bring further attention to the needs of Ohio communities.