Note: This story appears in the Sunday, Nov. 10 newspaper on Page A1.

Better infrastructure, stronger workforce development and funding resources were the top concerns of the numerous stakeholders and speakers who attended the Impact Ohio Southeast Regional Conference, held Thursday at the OU Inn.

Several big names highlighted the agenda — Lt. Gov. Jon Husted gave the first address, highlighting workforce development, integrating local economies into regional or global markets, and innovation across the state. These were themes throughout the rest of the conference, echoed by several of the other speakers and panel members.

Husted was joined by several notable figures in Ohio politics — Secretary of State Frank LaRose and Treasurer of State Robert Sprague also spoke during the conference, interspersed by a few other speakers and panels, including Ohio University President M. Duane Nellis and other regional leaders.

Husted spoke about the demographics of Ohio’s workforce, noting there are several aspects of a strong economy that Ohio needs to work harder to achieve. The first being to start implementing technology and allowing the workforce to “upskill” themselves through government funded training courses. These are available through TechCred, a new program that provides reimbursement to companies that enroll employees in approved certification courses for in-demand skills.

He also touched on the Ohio IP Promise, a new program that aims to share intellectual property and converting it into commercialized products. The program involves private and public partnerships, as well as partnerships with Ohio’s universities. The Messenger highlighted Ohio IP Promise in an October story.

“The states that get this right and form partnerships with businesses will be the ones to succeed,” he said. “We have to think differently.”

He encouraged the attendees to think about what they can identify in their companies, lives or communities that is world class, and to capitalize on that. An example he gave was of Athens, calling Ohio University’s employees and students the city’s comparative advantage.

A panel on infrastructure needs in Southeastern Ohio followed Husted’s speech, and focused mainly on water and wastewater infrastructure, as well as rural broadband.

Craig Butler, district chief of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Southeast District, spoke about the water needs of this region. He estimated that tens of billions of dollars would be required to fix all of the state’s water infrastructure needs. He pointed to the recent water plant upgrade in Amesville, noting the project’s positive affects while mentioning aspects of the water system broke while replacing other parts of it — leading to additional costs and time added to the project. It’s up to municipalities and local officials to better understand what systems are in place and how they could be improved, he said.

Bret Allphin, development director of the Buckeye Hills Regional Council, spoke about the broadband services needed in Southeastern Ohio. He said there is an ongoing, statewide discussion taking place on how easements should be regulated. Easements allow for companies, such as telecommunications, to utilize land they don’t own for the needed infrastructure. Currently, every company has to go get its own easement for each need, but there are proposals being developed to make easements universal — cutting down on how much prior work is needed before installing infrastructure.

Secretary of State Frank LaRose also spoke at the conference, and gave some updates on the work his office is conducting on the elections, especially concerning cyber security. LaRose recently presented the measures implemented this year in Ohio elections board offices at a Department of Homeland Security conference.

Athens County Commissioner Chris Chmiel asked LaRose how the region could work to engage the broader citizenry in the elections process and encourage better turnout numbers.

“You’re right,” LaRose agreed. “The ability for people to vote regardless of economic status is an important function.”

LaRose suggested partnering with local transportation services to provide free rides to the polls. He also pointed to Ohio’s early voting and absentee ballot options in saying the state provides voting opportunities.

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