EAST PALESTINE — With the Feb. 3 train derailment nearly nine months in the past, the village of East Palestine looked to the future during an economic development roundtable at the American Legion Hall in East Palestine on Thursday.
Village leaders met with local and state officials as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Recovery Coordinator Jim McPherson and Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw to shift the focus from the environmental remediation to an economic recovery in the wake of the rail disaster.
“Today was to bring federal, state, local and community leaders together and have a conversation about getting this community back on its feet. East Palestine is going to be a story about resilience, recovery and working together,” Shaw said. “We’ve exited the most intensive phase of environmental remediation, we’ve committed over $100 million to the community to help it recover and help it thrive, and this is basically the logical next step — bringing everyone together and saying “how do we invest in the long term to help the businesses and the community thrive? It’s going to take all of us working together. That’s how we’ve gotten to this point so far, and I am really encouraged by the level of coordination and cooperation and focus on the future.”
The plan is for participants of the roundtable to get back together early next year and continue the conversation with village businesses. The team is expected to deliver an executive summary in January that outlines what is needed to not only revitalize the village following the derailment but to resurrect it from the economic woes it faced long before Feb. 3. The summary was described as a roadmap for stakeholders to follow and utilize East Palestine’s strengths which were as diverse as its demographics.
Roundtable participants also included East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway and Fire Chief Keith Drabick, state Rep. Monica Robb Blasdel, Norfolk Southern’s Vice President of Business Development Kathleen Smith, Columbiana County Port Authority Executive Director Penny Traina, Port Authority Private Sector Specialist Haeden Panezott and representatives from JobsOhio, Team NEO (a Cleveland-based economic development organization meant to promote business expansion and job creation throughout Northeast Ohio) and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Mike Jacoby and Jeff Harris of Bricker Graydon, the economic development firm hired by the village through a $500,000 grant from the railroad, led presentations that discussed the initial assessment of the village’s economic health and a theme of live, work, shop, visit and recreate in East Palestine.
“Our firm Bricker Graydon was hired to do an economic development plan for the village and we started in mid-September,” explained Jacoby, who also serves on the East Palestine Economic Development Plan Steering Committee. “The first phase was listening and understanding what all the problems are that we are trying to address. Today, we shared some initial findings and talked about some of the early steps and themes, and to talk about where we go from here.”
Jacoby said shaking off the stigma left behind by the derailment is crucial for the village. To remedy that, he said the village has hired WRL, a Canton-based advertising firm, to change the narrative.
“WRL is putting out a branded campaign to talk about the good things that are happening in East Palestine and to provide factual information about what clean-up has occurred and what the test results are, and to talk about moving forward and have that be the image that is not only projected to the residents but out to the broader world as well.”
While no detailed plans were revealed at the roundtable, Jacoby said the idea is to rejuvenate the downtown district, using Columbiana as a blueprint. He also said the businesses already in the village need to stay, new businesses need to move in and the village’s manufacturing industry needs to be fostered.
“Downtown needs to be more vibrant. You want shopping with restaurants on the first floor and offices and lofts on the second, but you also want manufacturers,” he said. “There are manufacturers here and we need to make sure they have what they need to grow. That may be a space where they can grow. It may be financing programs to help them grow. It may be workforce training programs to help them grow. There’s a lot of different things that can be done and it’s going to take time but you have to start with a good plan.”
Shaw said Norfolk Southern’s role in that plan is to provide the resources needed.
“I said from the beginning that Norfolk Southern would be here for the long haul and we will be here to see this community through. Norfolk Southern will continue to provide assistance, its resources and its economic development arm to help East Palestine,” Shaw said. “Folks here are ready to take their energy and put it toward a positive direction. There are a lot of folks in this fantastic village who are really ready to start talking about resiliency and recovery and working forward. People want to continue to live here. People want to continue to raise their families here and make their living here. There is a lot of pride among the citizens of this village and we want to help support that and cultivate that.”
Stephanie Elverd can be reached at [email protected].