As the effects of COVID-19’s restrictions ravage the state’s economy, over a dozen Southeast Ohio regional leaders gathered their wits and drafted an action plan to help with regional recovery.

The plan notes that many of the issues it addresses have existed for a long time, but are exacerbated by COVID-19, and has been endorsed by the more than 40 members of the Mayors’ Partnership for Progress.

“Many decades of racial and economic disadvantage have left both with high rates of poverty and chronic illness, limited educational attainment, and few good job prospects,” the group’s press release reads. “Recent developments throughout our nation have only heightened awareness of this inequality and its negative consequences for our society. Several months ago, a group of community leaders from Southeast Ohio came together to fashion a response to the crisis.The attached document represents the identified immediate needs for our region, but these apply to all of Ohio’s low income neighborhoods, from rural Appalachia to our urban centers.”

The group noted in its press release that there are decades of economic and racial disadvantages that have many communities with high poverty rates, chronic illness, limited access to education and few prospects for good jobs. The release stated that the plan “identified immediate needs for Southeast Ohio region, but many of these apply to all of Ohio’s low-income neighborhoods, from rural Appalachia to our urban centers.”

The plan focuses on financial stabilization needed for:

  • Broadband access
  • Economic and community development
  • Education and workforce development
  • Healthcare
  • Local government
  • Low-income families

“We are aware of the financial implications of these recommendations, and we will work to develop a staged approach to their achievement,” the group wrote. “By acting swiftly, we can return financial stability to Southeast Ohio while addressing intensifying issues of equity and access that have long limited our region’s ability to grow and prosper.”

Leaders who signed approval of the plan include Cara Dingus, CEO of the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio; Glenda Bumgarner, Senior Director of External Engagement, JobsOhio; several mayors including Mayor Steve Patterson of Athens; Debbie Phillips, CEO of Rural Action; Mike Jacoby, president of the Ohio Southeast Economic Development board; Kelly Hatas, director of HAPCAP; and several local business leaders.

“Most immediately, we recognize that many of Southeast Ohio’s local governments and citizens — particularly vulnerable seniors and low-income children — are in desperate need and require immediate financial assistance,” the group wrote, encouraging legislators to use some of the $2.7 billion in the Ohio Budget Stabilization Fund while also seeking further federal dollars. “Importantly, we identify broadband as an essential 21st century utility necessary for work, education, telemedicine, economic development, and community vitality. The issue of broadband access has taken on new urgency during this pandemic, as many Southeast Ohio families lack the ability to work, learn, or receive medical care from their homes.”

Broadband access in rural areas, such as Athens, Vinton and Meigs counties, is not good. The group pointed out that private internet providers do not have an incentive to provide broadband without subsidies, and that the existing telecommunications infrastructure is by-and-large at least 50 years old and cannot support high-speed broadband.

“Credible calculations show, however, that a staged approach combining a mix of policy actions, regulatory adjustments, direct capital expenditures, and provider incentives can bring high speed broadband to every Appalachian Ohio business and residence by 2025,” the group determined. “The core elements of the policy are 1) providing sufficient, sustained state-level funding to maximize federal matching dollars, 2) permit use of existing electrical easements for fiber attachments on utility pole routes, 3) committing to fiber as the technology of choice, and 4) supporting non-traditional providers including power and telecommunications cooperatives.”

The leaders group also called for smart investments into the communities of Southeastern Ohio. Specifically, the letter action plan calls for expanded childcare options to allow families to return to work; funding and expanding reimbursements for healthcare providers who may be facing increased staffing needs; better business cash flow assistance; and providing better access to high-quality personal protective equipment.

Further, the group called for enhancement of education and workforce development programs.

“The long-term poverty of Southeast Ohio contributes to ongoing educational disparity and a workforce under-prepared for many 21st century jobs,” the group’s plan explains. “Because schools continue to be overly reliant on property taxes, low-income communities struggle to maintain school buildings, invest in new curriculum and technology, or attract qualified instructors, particularly in STEM fields. These limitations are further exacerbated by inadequate internet coverage and lack of transportation.

“This has presented a particular challenge during the COVID-19 crisis as many children throughout southeast Ohio lack the broadband access necessary to participate in online classes at home and other sources of internet access (such as libraries) are now closed,” the plan continued. “Finally, lack of economic opportunity and pervasive hopelessness have contributed to increases in substance abuse, domestic violence, and suicide, resulting in more Southeast Ohio children starting kindergarten with delayed language skills, behavioral health issues and/or a history of trauma.”

The group called for stabilized funding for higher education and K-12 education, as well as expanded access to behavioral and mental health services, as well as substance abuse treatments and career training programs.

The full plan can be found on Buckeye Hills Regional Council’s website, buckeyehills.org, under the news tab.

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