ZANESVILLE — Those who call Appalachian Ohio home have something to look forward to.
On Thursday, Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted made a stop in Zanesville to announce what he said is a historic investment into the Appalachian region: The state is proposing to pump $500 million into the region to spur economic growth and grow infrastructure through the Ohio BUILDS program.
The program pends legislative approval.
The goal is to revitalize towns across Ohio’s 32 Appalachian counties and improve quality of life. A big win, officials say, would be keeping young people in a region experiencing brain drain.
“As we know, you’ve got to create communities and spaces where people want to live, and that they want people to invest the money,” Husted said. “What will happen as a result of some of these grants — create communities, activities and amenities that will not only help you retain your talent of those young people but also lifting the economic fortunes of everyone who lives here.”
The plan focuses largely on a handful of priorities, regarding historic downtown revitalization, improving community health and local workforce. Another option is improving broadband, which would be in addition to a $250 million rural broadband initiative included in the latest state budget bill.
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The Ohio BUILDS Appalachian plan would work as a grant program, meaning municipalities would apply for money out of the larger pot. The first phase would offer $50 million for planning. Each municipality can apply for up to $100,000, but municipalities that work together as a team can apply for up to $3 million.
Then $450 million would be leftover to apply for additional grants. The same goes with the next round of grants, with the more collaboration, the more they’re eligible for. Municipalities will be able to apply for up to $15 million, and groups of three communities or more can apply for up to $50 million.
Zanesville Mayor Don Mason hopes to hit six major areas: downtown redevelopment, outdoor recreation and tourism, broadband infrastructure, education and workforce development, school and community-based services, and abuse treatment and prevention.
Zanesville faces a housing shortage across all types. The plan won’t fund housing directly, Husted acknowledged, but the hope is that the private sector will be called to action to aid all aspects of the plan.
“It’s hard to spend public money on private investment,” he said. “What we’re focused on is the infrastructure that is important to all of these community assets. We believe if we can create a community that’s worthy of investment, the private money will follow for other types of investments, like housing.”
State Sen. Tim Schaffer, R-Lancaster, who is chair of the Ohio Legislature Appalachian Caucus, noted that the combining the population of each county seat east of U.S. Route 23 and south of Interstate 70 — about two-thirds of Ohio’s Appalachian counties — would make them the sixth largest city.
“Bigger than Dayton, smaller than Akron, but we become the sixth largest city,” he said. “This proposal levels the playing field for us.”