Rules of the Road

The purpose of this blog is to share with you my thoughts on issues pertaining to Oil City and Venango County and to foster discussion.

However, that requires some basic rules. Personal attacks, inappropriate language and venom-filled postings will not be tolerated. Comments will be screened, and if necessary edited, before posting.

Disagreement and a variety of opinions are encouraged, but I ask that it always be in a respectful, positive manner. So fire away, but do so cleanly

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The ORA, the County and Just What Do We Expect

This morning (Feb. 25) I attended the annual meeting of the Oil Region Alliance as a representative of the city.

(I think I was the only Democrat there, which is not unusual for Venango County.)

Of course, the ORA was also in this morning’s paper with the announcement that the county intended to close this morning on the purchase of the West Unit from the Alliance. The deal has come under a great deal of criticism, as does the ORA on a somewhat regular basis.

Frankly, most of the criticism is not constructive and much of it unwarranted if not simply specious. My personal opinion is that more of the non-constructive criticism has to do with personalities and politics than the work of the economic development agency and that is not good for the county and our future.

I was not privy to the details when ORA purchased the West Unit and in turn leased it to the county, nor am I privy to all the background and details of the current deal selling the West Unit to the county.

My understanding is that the previous board of commissioners asked the ORA to structure a package to obtain the West Unit so that the county could centralize all its human service agencies. The county thought it would be able to cover the lease costs through state reimbursements, avoid the burden of owning the building and in turn the ORA would have an income stream.

However, circumstances changed with the decrease in state reimbursements and the county found the state funds would no longer cover the lease costs. It then determined it would be better to own the building. The ORA struck a deal to sell the West Unit to the county. The deal gives the ORA $1 million for the buy out of the county’s lease. A lot is being made of that, claiming it is a bad deal for county taxpayers.

But is it? As I understand it, the county still saves money in the long term, and just as importantly the ORA is left with some money to undertake economic development.

How exactly are we to do economic development if we are unwilling to pay for it? To me, the county deals, both the original one and this one, sound like a win-win – maybe not perfect, but better than anything else I’ve heard.

I understand there can be differing views of the deal between the county and the ORA, and of the agency itself.

Still, I’ve not heard the critics suggest a better way of funding economic development or any specifics of how to do a better job. I have heard a lot of potshots claiming the ORA is a failure. That’s not constructive criticism, but rather meaningless chatter.

The absolute most BS criticism I’ve heard was from a local businessman who said – and I paraphrase – “our unemployment has gone up under the ORA’s watch.” We are in the midst of the worst economic times since the Great Depression; just what would one expect?

ORA officials can point and did this morning to a number of very specific successes over the past year. Among them: Conair and WS Packaging (formerly Seneca Printing). Both companies could have been lost, but were kept here and are growing. They need to be given some credit for what they have done and continue to do.

I’m not beyond criticizing the ORA. I believe the leadership has too often been tone deaf and unable to grasp how some things they do individually or as an agency will be perceived and what the implications of that will be. High on my list of examples is ORA executives making personal political contributions to local candidates. That is bound to create political enemies. More importantly, the agency must strive to be absolutely politically neutral and perceptions play a huge role in that.

I have a real fear that the critics of the ORA/County deal will never let it go, that they won’t be able to say we lost, but let’s move on. That does not seem to be the way things are done in Venango County and we pay a price for that. (Think of the never ending threats of lawsuits whenever a decision is reached that some people don’t like)

The ORA is not perfect, but it is the economic development agency we have. Let’s work to strengthen it, not destroy it. If we criticize, let’s have workable suggestions for improvement in hand. We need everyone’s help.