By Peter H. Milliken
The idea of creating a four-county, lake-to-river port authority is worth exploring, a Mahoning Valley business community leader and a Columbiana County commissioner say.
They were reacting to the regionalization proposal made by David Ditzler, chairman of the Mahoning County commissioners, after a joint meeting of the Mahoning and Trumbull county commissioners on the future of the Western Reserve Port Authority.
Three board members resigned recently from the WRPA, which operates the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport and performs economic-development work in the two counties.
Under Ditzler’s proposal, Ashtabula, Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties would unify to form a regional port authority.
Ditzler said the merger idea might appeal to Ashtabula and Columbiana officials because of the airport in Vienna, but he said he hadn’t discussed the idea with commissioners or port authority officials in those counties.
“I could see why it should be explored,” said Thomas Humphries, president of the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber.
Although all the current authorities use the word “port” in their names, they have different types of ports, Humphries noted. “Each one has a different mission,” he added.
The WRPA operates an airport, while the Columbiana County Port Authority operates an Ohio River port at its Wellsville Intermodal Facility, and Ashtabula County has Lake Erie ports, he noted.
He added, however, that all four counties are linked by a major highway — the 104-mile-long state Route 11 — which runs from East Liverpool to Ashtabula.
“It’s an interesting idea, and it’s certainly worth at least looking at,” Columbiana County Commissioner Tim Weigle said of Ditzler’s proposal.
Weigle added, however, “I don’t have enough information on it to really say how it would work.”
Tracy V. Drake, chief executive officer of the Columbiana County Port Authority, deferred comments about the merits of Ditzler’s proposal to the Columbiana commissioners, who appoint all five of his authority’s board members.
“I do think the airport up there is a great economic-development tool for the region,” Drake said.
Most notable among the Columbiana County Port Authority facilities is the intermodal center in Wellsville, where freight is transferred between Ohio River barges and railroad cars and trucks.
That authority also controls the Leetonia Trade Park [an industrial park] and industrial buildings in Salem and East Liverpool.
In Ashtabula County, the port authority structure is more complex.
Janet Disher, Ashtabula County administrator, declined to comment on the merits of Ditzler’s proposal, but she outlined the multiple port authorities that serve her county.
The Ashtabula County Port Authority, whose members are appointed by the county commissioners, owns an industrial park in Saybrook Township and a pumping station in Ashtabula Township that supplies Lake Erie water to local industry.
The Ashtabula County Airport Authority operates an airport in Denmark Township.
Separate city port authorities in Ashtabula and Conneaut maintain their respective Lake Erie water ports, Disher explained.
Like the port authorities in the other counties, all port authorities in Ashtabula County promote economic development, she added.
As for the implications of the fragmentation of port authorities in Ashtabula County for any regionalization idea, Ditzler said of his proposal: “It was just a concept that I said I thought was interesting to try and investigate.”
He said he wants to find a new director of WRPA before exploring the regional concept.
The WRPA board hasn’t named an interim executive director since the April 15 departure of Rose Ann DeLeon, who was executive director.
At a recent Mahoning commissioners’ meeting, former Mayor Dan Mamula of Struthers, spoke of a port authority-related concern much closer to home.
Mamula said mayors of nine Mahoning River communities comprising the Mahoning River Corridor Mayors Association, who wrote a letter to the commissioners, want assurances that industrial brownfield and urban redevelopment won’t suffer from the troubles at the WRPA.
“It’s something that we won’t lose sight of,” Ditzler told Mamula.