Economic Development

Traina Takes Columbiana Port Authority in New Direction

EAST LIVERPOOL, Ohio — The lead economic development agency in Columbiana County has taken a different tack since Penny Traina became its executive director 18 months ago.

In February 2016, when the board of the Columbiana County Port Authority tapped one of its former members and a former county commissioner to lead it, most residents and elected officials had only a vague idea of the role the port authority plays.

Traina’s predecessor, Tracy Drake, had hit home runs with the Wellsville Intermodal Facility and World Trade Park just west of Leetonia. The industrial park in Wellsville is at capacity and has two overhead cranes that load and unload Ohio River barges. Pennex Aluminum Co. has a plant in World Trade Park and Humtown Products just renewed its lease on the former operations center there.

But Drake also hit several long foul balls because of the Great Recession and advances in energy technology.

One example: The Baard Energy Co., based in Canada, proposed to spend nearly $7 billion to build a coal gasification plant just west of Wellsville and produce 2.1 million gallons a day of ultra-clean jet fuel from Ohio coal. The rise of the oil and natural gas industry in the Marcellus and Utica shale, combined with the opposition of environmental groups, caused Baard to end those efforts.

The port authority recently returned a $140,000 grant that the state of Ohio had provided in support of those efforts.

“We’re going after singles,” Traina says. To get those base hits, she and the manager for administration and finance, Diane Ksiazek, have held roundtables for mayors, city and village councilmen, township trustees, chambers of commerce and small-business owners. They explained the powers the Columbiana County Port Authority is prepared to use in their behalf to build or improve infrastructure and in support of business development, growth and job training.

And if the port authority lacks a tool in its toolbox, it will turn to one of its partners that does, such as Neotec, Team NEO, the Appalachian Regional Commission, Omega (Ohio Mid-Eastern Governments Association, a 10-county partnership), and to the appropriate state or federal agency.

“Collaboration is the key to our success,” Traina says,”with the state, with the feds, with other economic development agencies. In the last 18 months, we have diligently researched grants and loans available in Ohio.”

The port authority can issue up to $10 million a year in tax-exempt bonds, Ksiazek notes, a power it has seldom used. Indeed, other port authorities that have issued their maximums have turned to the Columbiana development agency to use its authority to issue bonds on their behalf.

“We are not a lender,” Ksiazek explains, but she and Traina “have gone out to groups to make them aware of financing available” through its partners. Twice this year they have steered parties to Omega.

Traina sees Columbiana County as one of 33 counties in western Pennsylvania, southern Ohio and northern West Virginia that constitute the “Ohio River Corridor” that runs 200 miles through those 33 counties.

The port authority joined the other 32 to create the Mid-Ohio Valley Statistical Port District “so we can collect cargo tonnage and leverage those statistics” to market the enterprises along the river and use the data in applying for state and federal grants.

The county is “geographically blessed to be on the Ohio River,” Traina says, because of the volume of barge traffic that carries and delivers raw materials, fuel, agricultural products and finished goods.

Since January, Traina has met with all of the county commissioners from Pittsburgh (Allegheny County) to Weirton, W.Va., which straddles Brooke and Hancock counties. And the port authority has joined all nine of the chambers of commerce in Columbiana County.

“The outreach has worked,” Traina says, as reflected by the officials who have visited her office in East Liverpool and phone calls to discuss support for their projects.

One of her emphases is “the marketing of the Ohio River.” To this end the port authority and NAI Spring Commercial Realty will host a half-day seminar Nov. 8 at the East Liverpool County Club.

“Dams and locks are in need of repairs,” Ksiazek notes, and “with the cracker plant Shell is building in Monaca,” it’s essential that work on such infrastructure be done.

Beyond the companies at the Intermodal Facility, such work would benefit the 1,100-megawatt natural- gas electric generating plant South Field Energy LLC proposes to build in Yellow Creek Township about three miles west of Wellsville. South Field has been issued the necessary permits to operate and is working on securing financing, a spokesman says.

South Field would build on 20 acres of the 150-acre site where Baard intended to build its gasification plant. Construction of the $1.1 billion project would take up to three years and employ 550 skilled tradesmen at peak construction. Upon completion, 25 full-time employed in engineering, operations and management would work there in “well-paying” jobs, the company says.

The larger projects have long incubation periods while the small projects can be turned around quickly.

Case in point: the vinyl clings in vacant storefronts in downtown Salem. In late summer of 2016, William Dawes, president of Downtown Salem Partnership, approached the port authority to fund up to nine vinyl clings that would be hung in vacant storefronts. The authority board appropriated up to $9,000, only half of which was spent, Dawes says.

The re-usable clings advertise the availability of the property, whether for sale or lease, and potential use. The artwork is be an improvement over the empty windows passers-by could look through and see either empty space or clutter remaining on the floor.

Since then, Vicki McGee has opened Simply Scarves in one of the storefronts, the Ferrell Gas Co. has moved into another and Second Blessing bookstore a third, Audrey Null, president of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, reports. Three of the nine clings remain in other storefronts, Dawes says, but progress comes in increments, she adds.

Since Traina became head of the port authority, Null says, its “visibility and availability [of what it offers] have improved.” She praises Traina’s efforts to help businesses implement drug-free workplaces and help businesses grow. “She leads in things like that,” Null says.

Salem Mayor John Berlin also gives high marks to Traina because of her close working relationship with the Salem Opportunity Development Center and its director, Mike Mancuso.

Traina wants businesses to know that the port authority can help fund the remediation of brownfields. One of its first major projects was funding the remediation of the properties just west of the city of Columbiana where Zarbana Aluminum Extrusions and Buckeye Transfer sit today.

And the port authority acts as a small-business incubator. Inside its headquarters building, 1250 St. George St., are five small enterprises.

As a member of Neotec, the port authority, can help businesses that set up in Columbiana County make use of Foreign Trade Zone 181 to import and export goods without concern for tariffs.

Eighty of the 126 acres in World Trade Park outside Leetonia remain vacant and Traina wants to sell them to industry, she says, A business that locates there can benefit from its FTZ 181 status.

From the very large projects to the humdrum day-to-day administration, Traina pays attention. From replacing roofs at the Mitsubishi plant in Leetonia to disposing of a large stock of burnt-out light bulbs that had been allowed to accumulate in the headquarters building, she has taken charge.

She believes in transparency. Each month, Traina provides the press with a log of every check the port authority issued the preceding month. She and Ksiazek made the case to their board that it switch from the accrual basis of accounting to cash basis.

“It makes it easier for audits to be conducted,” Traina explains. “Diane has been working diligently with the UAN – Unified Accounting Network – that is linked with the state auditor’s office.”

And for every contract the port authority awards, “from lawn cutting to replacing roofs, we bid out everything,” she says. If the port authority doesn’t receive three bids, Traina or Ksiazek solicit a second and third.

Shortly after Traina became executive director, a project four years in the works nearly collapsed at the last minute.

The New Castle School of Trades intended to convert the former Ogilvie’s department store in downtown East Liverpool to one of its campuses. The tax credits PNC Bank would use as part of its financing package were about to expire.

Because it had taken longer than anticipated to line up the financing, “the roof [of the department store] had caved into the first floor,” Traina recalls. More debris had to be cleared out and more asbestos exposed. “They needed $500,000 to put the financing back in place.”

New Castle School of Trades asked the port authority for help. “I was asked to take over,” Ksiazek says. “The county, city and Columbiana County Port Authority agreed to help out if needed.”

If the school couldn’t make up the difference, Columbiana County and the city of East Liverpool would, followed by the port authority. “We would be the last dollar spent,” Ksiazek says. “I had 36 hours to make it happen.”

She did, arranging for the governments to guarantee loans before support from the port authority kicked in.

Today the school’s East Liverpool is a point of pride in that city, turning out graduates certified to work in electrical and industrial maintenance, welding, and refrigeration and climate control.

Pictured at top: Penny Traina at the Wellsville Intermodal Park.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.