STEUBENVILLE — Tired of hearing people say there’s nothing good happening in Jefferson County, nearly a dozen local leaders stepped up to the podium Tuesday to explain why they’re so sure the naysayers are getting it all wrong.

The first State of the County address, held in the auditorium at Steubenville High School, gave local officials a chance to enthuse about everything from new businesses, education and recreational opportunities to what’s being done to drum up tourism throughout the area as well as create jobs.

The discussion, which lasted just under 80 minutes, “went well, really,” Commissioner Eric Timmons said. “Beyond my expectations.”

“There were 75 to 100 people in attendance and I saw the livestream had more than 4,000 views,” he added. “So, we got the positive message out.”

Kicking it off was Commissioner Tony Morelli, who told the crowd the county is supporting development of a 43-megawatt solar generation project – that’s big enough to power 8,000 homes — on a reclaimed strip-mined property that currently generates about $20,000 a year in tax revenue. If the solar project comes to pass it would bring up to $380,000 a year in tax revenue, almost half of it going to Indian Creek School District. It also would create 15 or 20 permanent jobs and another 200 construction jobs.

“That’s a positive,” Morelli said, who also pointed to a host of other projects — SaferWatch, a county-wide school safety initiative; Trinity Medical Center West’s $75 million expansion; massive spending on courthouse renovations; updated equipment in county offices and for deputies and correctional officers. The county also is spending about $150,000 to install an accessible kayak launch at Friendship Park and replace shelter roofs. “The possibilities out there are unlimited. I feel one of the things we need to do is give our kids and grandkids something to do.”

Morelli also touched on their potential to land millions of dollars in funding through the governor’s Appalachian Community Grant program, including more than $100 million for lifestyle-themed projects proposed by Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District. If it’s funded, “six different townships in our county will realize over $70 million with the different projects,” Morelli said.

Commissioner Dave Maple pointed out the unemployment rate is at its lowest since he took office 20 years ago. “It’s a driver of what we’re working on, what we should be working on,” he said, pointing out about 1,200 county residents are unemployed. “That’s one of the lowest numbers since we’ve been tracking it. On average it’s 2,000, a little over 2,000.”

County spending has increased about 3 percent a year over that same 20 years, going from $12 million in 2005 to $20 million now, “which sounds like a big number but …we’re right at about a 3 percent trend” per year, Maple said.

Maple ticked off a long list of changes, not least of which is the tens of millions of dollars they’ve spent to ensure county residents have a safe water supply and reliable sewer services, courthouse renovations and ongoing upgrades to the Tower building, “one of the best buildings in downtown Steubenville right now.”

He cited their commitment to build a new spec building at the industrial park, a project the three commissioners spearheaded. It’s currently in the planning stages, pointing out “there’s a window now where we can get some grants and loans and put this (project) together.”

“When you look at 50,000-100,000-square-foot buildings, not just in Jefferson County but all the way down river, very, very few are available for employers to work in, so we need to build one,” Maple said. “Most employers I deal with on the private side don’t have time to wait and don’t want to wait for you to build them, they want to move right in. So, there’s a low inventory which drives us.”

Steubenville Mayor Jerry Barilla reported on gains in the community’s tourism base, telling the group an estimated 40,000 people came to town for the 2023 Nutcracker Village celebration. “It’s huge for our restaurants, retail stores as well as hotels,” he said.

Barilla said the city’s light-up night festivities also brought in 4,000 and the Christmas parade, about 7,000, while a “Rat Pack” event at Froehlich’s during the Dean Martin Festival was standing room only. He also applauded the new ice-skating rink, a Franciscan University of Steubenville project, and the long-awaited opening of 7 Ranges Entertainment at the Fort Steuben Mall.

“I haven’t seen so many cars there in years,” Barilla said.

Other highlights:

• Port Authority Executive Director Robert Naylor said the county’s decision to pursue construction of a spec building is major. “It can be one of the most important things to do for economic development, but it’s also a risky venture at the same time,” he said, pointing out another spec building is being developed in Yorkville by another entity. That site has access to rail, water and four-lane over-the-road transportation.

A second bond issue, combined with funding through the Ohio Rail Development Commission, is helping JSW Steel continue to add new equipment and expand its rail yards, but Naylor also pointed to construction of the new Form Energy iron air battery plant, a $760 million investment in Weirton, and ongoing growth at the Beech Bottom Industrial Park. He said growth and investments anywhere in the tri-county area are going to be good for everybody.

• Chamber of Commerce President Kate Sedgmer said they’ve picked up more than 30 new members since 2023.

“Businesses are opening every day here,” she said. “There are wonderful things happening in the area.”

• Wintersville Mayor Mike Petrella talked about the gains in new business openings. “We’ve had 25 new businesses in two years, and we’re not done yet,” he said.

“Great things are happening all over the place — and not just in Wintersville and not just in Steubenville … Positivity spreads, prosperity spreads.”

• State Rep. Ron Ferguson, R-Wintersville, touted the gains made across the county. “That’s why we opened 7 Ranges,” he said. “The ‘needs’ have been taken care of, now it’s (time to address wants).”

• Shana Wydra, director of SCS STEM/CTE program for Steubenville City Schools, said she expects their $17 million STEM building should be open for May semester classes. She said Steubenville High School has a student population of 732, and 362 of them are enrolled in at least one career tech pathway.

“We had four students graduate with their associate degree, a high school diploma and their student pilot’s license,” she pointed out.

• Franciscan University of Steubenville Community Relations Director Joe Wallace spoke of the success of the school’s building campaign which surpassed the original, $75 million fundraising goal in just six months, then setting – and meeting — new goals. Currently it’s raised well over $100 million.

He said this year’s freshman class numbers 768, noting the “past three years brought us our largest classes ever.”

“Most are leaving but many are staying,” Wallace said, referencing the “community of faith, friendship and opportunity” they’ve found here.

• Barry Bardone, adjutant for the Jefferson County Veterans Association, discussed ongoing efforts to help veterans as well as honor their service and sacrifice. He said more than 880 names of service men and women have been inscribed in bricks making up the Veterans Memorial wall at Friendship Park.

He also reported on efforts to secure a posthumous Medal of Honor for the late Fred McGee, reminding those in attendance that his actions in a battle on Hill 528 in Tang-Wan-Ni, Korea,in June 1952 had not been accurately reported.

Outnumbered and facing heavy enemy fire McGee, a Smithfield resident, had assumed command and led an advance after his squad leader was wounded. Despite wounds to his own leg and face, McGee helped evacuate wounded comrades in the midst of mortar and artillery fire. After his squad was ordered to withdraw, McGee stayed behind to help evacuate the wounded and the dead.

Bardone said the resolution awarding McGree his medal “is on the president’s desk, awaiting his signature.”

The first State of the County address for Jefferson County held