MARTINS FERRY - The city is looking at the possibility of a new direction thanks to the oil and gas boom, but with a poor economy, mill closings and further funding cuts expected from the state level, leaders are steering a careful course until that prosperity arrives.
Martins Ferry Mayor Paul Riethmiller noted that although much is beyond the city's control, people on the local level are working to prepare for the good as well as the bad.
"We need to do everything we can in a small town to watch the money we do have - we have to watch it closely because we know how tight it's going to be in the next couple years," he said. "We're just going to have to play it real close to the vest because we don't know what the future holds."
T-L Photo/ ROBERT A. DEFRANK
A ribbon cutting greeted National Lime & Stone Company’s formal welcome to Martins Ferry. Mayor Paul Riethmiller, Timothy DiBerardino, vice president of marketing and distribution for the business, Bill Callison, president of Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad, and various political delegates or their representatives were in attendance.
He added that expectations are high for 2013.
"Down on the riverfront we are hopeful that this coming spring or summer the gas and oil business is going to pick up. We know right now it's just running behind schedule," he said. The gas industry "means good things for us. We've had companies purchase property on First Street, they have not broken ground yet."
In addition, Riethmiller said the city also stands to benefit if the oil and gas operations and well drilling continue in the county.
"We had two preliminary talks with people who are interested in buying water, which of course would help our whole water project," he said. "They need millions of gallons of water to (frack) those wells. That's where our hope lies in 2013. We're hoping that this oil and gas picks up."
He added that Martins Ferry suffered a loss when RG Steel shut down and was sold again.
"They were our largest water customer. When Wheeling-Pitt was up and running full volume, they were by far our largest customer in the city of Martins Ferry, so when that mill is idle, we have lost our largest water buyer in the city that brings money in to us. We would love to see that mill pick up," he said.
Wheeling businessman Quay Mull purchased the mill out of bankruptcy. His intentions are unknown.
To complicate matters, the county auditor has confirmed further state cuts are coming.
"We've been able to keep our head above water," Riethmiller said.
"We hope that this oil and gas will bring jobs to the community, because the jobs mean people moving in. It means income tax," he said, adding that collections on city income tax has been down, but that he believes the tax needs to remain at .75 percent.
"I'm pretty sure that this council does not want to increase income tax."
Many of the issues in Martins Ferry are felt by all the riverfront communities in Ohio.
Riethmiller added that city council has the authority to raise the tax to 1 percent without voter approval.
"We've got to get people back to work," he said, noting that an increase in jobs and people paying income tax will hopefully help offset the losses from plant closings. He pointed out the importance of convincing people to invest in the county.
Riethmiller said the city has begun to see entrepreneurial investments creating a livelier and more prosperous community.
"Right now, the end of the year and the first of this year we've had several small businesses come into our community, which we welcome," he said. "... We're filling up these store fronts with small businesses. They're coming in on Fourth Street and Fifth Street. They're nice home businesses that will add to our community and we're glad to have them."
Riethmiller noted the city leadership has pulled together in the face of these coming changes.
"The new councilmen have got one year under their belt. They've got a second year," he said. "Being a councilman's not an easy job for anybody but I think everyone that's a new councilman is already filing their paperwork to run for another two years. That shows there are people who care about the community.
"They feel things are going in a good direction. We need to move forward but they also know how much work is ahead of us."