Top Western Licking Co. minds discuss area's future
Advocate Reporter

March 28, 2008

PATASKALA -- Western Licking County leaders hope to adopt a regional strategy to address traffic, funding and development issues in the coming years.

On Thursday night, almost three dozen of those leaders got together in Pataskala to discuss the most prominent issues facing the region. The officials took no action, but they left the meeting, sponsored by the Pataskala Area Chamber of Commerce, seemingly intent to work together in the coming months to make the region a better place in which to work and live.

"We certainly got a lot of information out of this, but the key now is to go forward," chamber member Bart Weiler said after the meeting.

Officials from Pataskala, Harrison Township, Etna Township, Jersey Township, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, Southwest Licking Local Schools, Central Ohio Technical College, the Ohio Department of Transportation and the Licking County Sheriff's Office attended the meeting. They were joined by county commissioners Tim Bubb and Mark Van Buren, State Rep. Jay Hottinger, State Sen. Tim Schaffer and an aide for U.S. Rep. Pat Tiberi, among others.

The chamber has sponsored similar meetings in the past, but those meetings often became bogged down in get-to-know-you sessions, with officials spending valuable time introducing themselves and gabbing about issues distinct to their communities.

Kordell Norton, a professional facilitator, led Thursday's meeting. Norton asked the group to define some of the challenges facing western Licking County. The group came up with too many to count, prompting Norton to declare, "You're a mess."

Norton asked the group to pare down the long list down to five. It picked these: Planning for the future, paying for services, regionalism, public involvement and transportation.

"We don't collaborate in all our efforts," said Hottinger, citing the need for a more regional approach.

Bubb, meanwhile, pointed out Licking County is moving from a rural county to a more urbanized one. With that transition, area leaders need to identify how to pay for services residents expect from a more urban setting.

The need to plan for future development was another significant concern.

"It is important to plan for the future, and too often we look backward rather than forward," said Jerry Brems, director of the Licking County Planning Commission.

Weiler said, "The only way we're going to be able to plan for the future is everybody knows what's going on."

Funding remains one of the major hot-button issues in the region, and the group touched on it repeatedly. Voters from Southwest Licking Local Schools defeated a building issue and an income tax increase in early March, and Pataskala continues to operate without a road and bridge levy and an income tax.

Funding for transportation improvements remains another pressing topic. Officials from Pataskala and Etna Township long have dreamed of getting a new Interstate 70 interchange to address congestion on Ohio 310.

Julie Gwinn, planning administrator for ODOT District 5, told the group ODOT expects to have a $3.5 billion program shortfall through 2015.

"Trying to do big projects is really tough these days," she said.

The group not only defined the most pressing issues facing the region, it also brainstormed ways to address them. That work prompted Pataskala Assistant Administrator BJ King to point out one thing their cures had in common: Getting the public involved.

If the region's leaders really are interested in soliciting the opinions of people, Pataskala resident Grace Cherrington, who attended Thursday's meeting, had some advice for them.

"You have to let the public know it's really worth their time and that you really will care and listen," she said.

If that is to happen, the leaders who assembled Thursday night will need to define what specific issues they hope to address.

Hottinger, among others, supports conducting more meetings.

If the various officials do not meet again until 2009, they will have wasted an opportunity, he said.

To that end, chamber member Arnold Shaheen suggested establishing committees to address the issues facing the region. The chamber did not organize any committees Thursday night, but it could in the coming weeks.

"There has to be something after this to take this to the next level," Weiler said.