Economic Development

Drake to Leave Columbiana County Port Authority

EAST LIVERPOOL, Ohio – Tracy Drake, who has led the Columbiana County Port Authority more than two decades and is dean of the port authority directors in the United States, announced Tuesday that “my last official day on the job will be Sept. 30.”

His most recent contract, which runs three years, expires at the end of the month.

“The port board of directors has informed me that they do not intend to offer me a new contract for next year,” he said in a written statement.

Drake is or has been chairman of the board of Neotec (Northeast Ohio Trade & Economic Consortium), president of the Northeast Ohio Development Association and president of the Ohio Council of Port Authorities.

The CEO of the Columbiana County Port Authority is in on vacation in Sarasota, Fla., where he and his wife, Pamela, have bought a home. Pamela Drake, a medical doctor and psychiatrist, will join an established psychiatrist practice there, Drake’s statement said. She had practiced in Salem since the Drakes moved here from Maryland in 1992.

Drake said he will start a consulting firm in Sarasota. “I’m in discussions with several public- and private-sector entities about putting my expertise to use,” he wrote. “It is my expectation that a significant amount of my time may well continue to be spent in Ohio.”

The president of the board, Charles Presley, said yesterday that he “had not received notice from Tracy” before Drake released his statement. The timing of the announcement, but not the announcement itself, took him by surprise.

He denied that he or the board of five, all appointed by the county commissioners, had informed Drake his contract would not be renewed. “The board has not taken action” on whether to renew Drake’s contract he said, a subject that presumably was to be discussed and acted on at board meeting Sept. 21.

Presley declined to say anything beyond the port board had not acted on whether to offer Drake another contract – “It’s a personnel matter. Legally I can’t talk about it.” – and that the board does not have anyone prepared to step in to fill the CEO position.

As to why Drake would make such an assertion, Presley responded, “He’s at liberty to make comments. I can’t comment.”

Presley said he expects the port board will conduct a national search.  “We’ll do what’s best for Columbiana County.”

He noted that Drake will leave the port authority “in solid, wonderful shape. Today the board has a solid staff – solid, good people — and solid finances.”

Drake praised his staff as “hardworking, world-class.”

In his statement, Drake noted the port authority “is in the best financial shape it has ever been in. Without cost to the county’s taxpayers, the assets of the port authority have grown from $5 million to almost $40 million during my tenure, an average of $1.6 million per year. We have procured over $30 million in legislatively earmarked or grant funds during that time that have gone to improve local infrastructure such as the [state] Route 7/Clark Avenue interchange in Wellsville [and leading to the Wellsville Intermodal Facility]. During the past 20 years, the port authority has helped secure over $1 billion in private sector investment and the retention or creation of 2,000 jobs in the county.”

The Columbiana County Port Authority is the only one in the state of Ohio that supports itself and does not rely on any funding from county residents or entities. Since Drake has headed it, the port authority it has shown a profit every year.

In a telephone interview from Florida, Drake told how he grew up on a farm in western Ohio and saw up close how a Honda plant that employs 28,000 was built in Union County. That sparked his interest in economic development.

He attended the University of Minnesota on a ROTC scholarship, served in the Navy as the navigator on a destroyer and left to earn his law degree at the University of Toledo on the GI bill.

From there he went to Maryland where he was an assistant attorney general and served the port authority of Baltimore.

When the American Association of Port Authorities informed him in the early 1990s that the Columbiana County Port Authority was looking for an executive director, he applied. During his tenure he took industrial brownfields, had them remediated and transformed into industrial parks or sites where companies in the private sector could start fresh.

“When I got there [East Liverpool], the port authority directors gave me a list of 10 action items,” Drake recalled, one of which was “develop maritime facilities.” Drake oversaw the conversion of what was known as “The Brickyard” just west of Wellsville to what today is Wellsville Intermodal Facility, a thriving industrial park along the Ohio River where barges offload their cargoes onto truck and rail cars.

Reclaiming The Brickyard took time, money and a letter from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency that it would not sue upon completion of the remediation of the soil.

Much of Columbiana County is rural and both Drake and the board who hired him wanted a fiber optic system that would serve all its residents. After a couple of false starts, DRS LLC of Youngstown, since acquired by Involta, completed wiring begun in the public schools in Columbiana County and extended service to more residents. All major population centers have access to the Internet. “It was slower than we wanted but we got it,” Drake said.

During his tenure, Columbiana County seemed on the verge of building a small number of large-scale industrial plants, such as Cogentrix’s gas-fired plant in Center Township that was to produce electricity for the region. Another was the coal gasification plant thatBaard Energy proposed building just west of Wellsville in Yellow Creek Township.

The port authority secured the land for Baard but the economics that seemed to justify both projects changed and neither was built.

The port authority board deemed it vital to preserve the former Youngstown & Southern Railroad, the short line from Youngstown to Darlington, Pa. Drake led the efforts to acquire and save the line, since sold to MarkWest Energy Partners (in turn to be acquired by Marathon Oil) at a profit.

Ownership of the short line was a ”financial burden” to the port authority but the full benefits of preserving it are yet to be realized beyond transporting oil and gas, Drake said.

Economic development officials have their false starts and projects that don’t pan out along with their successes, Drake said. And some of those projects or initiatives take longer to come to fruition than thought at the beginning.

As he leaves, “we’re leaving a lot of irons in the fire,” he said cryptically, and stopped there.

Serving as CEO of the port authority “was the best job I could ever have had,” Drake said in his interview. I

n his written statement, Drake said, “This has been a great place to live and raise my family. I’d stack the entrepreneurial spirit, work ethic and labor expertise found in the region against any place else in the United States.”

Pictured: Tracy Drake stands near the huge maritime crane at the Wellsville Intermodal Park.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.