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Port authority gives $1M to local projects

State tax money initially intended for Clark County jobs efforts.Springfield group’s leader: We pick good projects.

When the Springfield Port Authority awarded grants last month to a food bank, the new ice rink and for a statue of world boxing champion Davey Moore, it pushed the total the port authority has paid for local projects to near $1 million.

“Good, bad or indifferent, that’s what we’re doing with it,” said Jim Foreman, the authority’s direct and plain-spoken chairman, long-time community leader and automobile dealer.

His remarks recognize the reality that the seven-member board of appointees was created with a different purpose in mind: jobs.

Started in 2009 with $1.5 million from the Ohio Department of Economic Development, the port authority was envisioned to finance major economic development and infrastructure projects in Springfield.

Local officials anticipated another $1.5 million to give it the resources to do so.

But when Gov. Ted Strickland lost his re-election bid and Gov. John Kasich moved to privatize the state’s economic development apparatus, that didn’t happen.

“A million and a half dollars just doesn’t do anything” in the world of financing, Foreman said. So “after about a year and a half (of the fund sitting idle), I said we’ve got to start doing something for the community with this money.”

Since then it has functioned much like a community foundation — giving out $992,350 in grants and a $70,000 loan — a change in direction made possible by the broad discretion granted port authorities by Ohio law.

“Port authorities have pretty wide-ranging powers and authorities,” said Springfield City Law Director Jerry Strozdas, who helped get the authority up and running and has retained an unofficial interest in it ever since.

Both the broadness of that authority and the fact that port authority board members are appointed rather than elected that concerns Greg R. Lawson of the Buckeye Institute, a free-market think tank in Columbus.

“I think port authorities … do very positive things,” he said, noting concerns about the transparency of their operations and their accountability.

Of the Springfield Port Authority’s recent moves, the one that really stuck out, he said, was the grant for the statue.

“It’s not terrible or anything like that, but the real point here is, at a time when we’re needing to do more and more development to get jobs, let’s be spending what resources we have in the smartest ways possible,” Lawson said.

There seems little question, however, that the statue project fits the authorized purposes granted the port authority. The state statute grants the port authority the power to do anything to “enance, foster, aide provide or promote economc development, housing, recreation, governmental operations culture or research” within its jurisdiction.

One of the first local projects was true to the founding purposes of port authorities: to develop ports and other transportation infrastructure to spur economic development. A separate West Central Ohio Port Authority operates in Clark County, largely to promote rail transportation.

In 2009, the Springfield Port Authority spent $170,000 on the purchase and inspection of a building so that Springfield could be a stop on a proposed passenger rail route from Cleveland to Cincinnati.

Plans to build the rail line with economic stimulus money subsequently were scrapped, and the authority still owns the property, purchased as part of the authority’s effort to make Springfield a travel destination.

Springfield City Manager Jim Bodenmiller said the port authority’s help in getting Springfield on the official list of stops may yet bear fruit.

“It certainly put us on the map should it be revisited,” he said.

Bodenmiller also credited the port authority, and Foreman specifically, for effective lobbying on the city’s behalf.

He said the authority also was able to negotiate for the building “and do that very quickly,” something the city couldn’t have done, allowing the community to seize an opportunity that otherwise could have been lost.

Despite their names, most port authorities have long since moved on from a transportation focus to serving as vehicles for general economic development. In 1990, state lawmakers even granted port authorities the power to support public housing projects and homeless shelters.

In 2009, the local authority gave $43,000 to help the Springfield Conservancy District build whitewater features to draw kayakers to Buck Creek and $4,000 for a feasibility study on use of the former South High School.

In 2010, it committed $200,450 toward the improvement of the Veterans Park Bridge and streetscape, which the city used as matching funds for a federal grant, and $25,000 to demolish homes adjacent to the Westcott House Museum.

Grants in 2011 included $12,000 for bunk beds for the homeless sheltered by Interfaith Hospitality Network and $200,000 toward the operating costs of the air traffic control tower at Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport.

Bodenmiller said the authority’s contribution “enabled us to keep the air traffic control operation going” after the end of the program that trained F-16 pilots. That, he said, has kept the airport in the running as a site for development of Unmanned Aerial Systems.

This year’s port authority distributions include $35,000 to support an impact study for the STEM school to be established in the former South High School and $36,000 to support a community group’s project to convert a former Brinks security truck it purchased for $10 into a SWAT vehicle for the Springfield Police Division.

April’s grants included $25,000 to the Springfield Family Ice Arena and Expo Center, $7,500 for the Davey Moore statue, and $50,000 to Second Harvest Food Bank.

Perhaps none of the projects demonstrates its potential for quickly meeting emerging community needs as the Second Harvest grant.

“I saw an article in the paper where they were having problem keeping all their stuff frozen,” Foreman said.

That led to a call to Keith Williamson, director of the food bank, who explained the food bank’s need to expand its ability to handle perishable food to feed the growing number of hungry.

“I just thought, all the good they do for the unfortunate in Springfield, it would be a nice thing to do,” Foreman said.

Within a month of the article’s appearing in the Springfield News-Sun, the grant was made, and the food bank is now using the authority’s money to get matching funds from food giant Cargill to complete its cooler and freezer expansion.

Not everything has gone smoothly for the port authority.

The organization ran into some headaches when it stepped in to loan nearly $70,000 to the owners of the Champions Center at the Clark County Fairgrounds pay back taxes. It subsequently worked out a deal with the Ohio Equine and Agricultural center for repayment after the center stopped making payments.

But Foreman defends the port authority’s shift in emphasis.

“I think we pick good projects,” Foreman said. “I really do.”

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