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Q&A: Southeastern Ohio Port Authority's Terry Tamburini on Appalachia's strong suits

Executive Director of the Southeastern Ohio Port Authority Terry Tamburini. Photos Ben French
Executive Director of the Southeastern Ohio Port Authority Terry Tamburini. Photos Ben French

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Washington County has a strong industrial presence. How did that came about?

I was told by the former mayor of Williamstown (W.Va.), who used to run two of the large plants here, that after World War II, companies began to think about moving to areas where there was water, power and and workforce, with greater security being the motivating factor. Moving back 600 miles or 700 miles or whatever from the East Coast was a pretty safe proposition. You moved into that next big body of water, being the Ohio River. That was the evolution, starting with two big plants as the anchor facilities: DuPont, which has their largest plant in the country right across the river from us south of Parkersburg, and of course our plant, the companion plant. Union Carbide came in about the same time. It's now been broken up into four other plants after the disaster in (Bhopal) India and the devolution of the company.

Washington County ended last year with the eighth lowest unemployment rate among Ohio counties. You must be happy about that.

Well, no, never. When I was in college in the '60s, the acceptable unemployment rate was 3 percent and that persisted for a long time. Now, when this thing shakes out, we're going to be satisfied with five percent. People say, especially about the Appalachian area, 'well you didn't have much of an economy anyway, so you just stayed the same.' And that's not the case. We have a fairly diverse and strong economy. Of course we're not terribly satisfied with 8 or 9 percent or 10 percent. We got caught up in the mistakes of other regions, other areas, and that depressed our economy. We're ready, and we're biding our time hoping that demand will increase, will be enhanced in other parts of our country so demand will go up. Some are being buoyed by sales to the military and solar power is emerging as a big deal here. You wouldn't think it would.

Could you talk about that for a minute?

AEP (American Electric Power Co.) is collaborating with people just north of us in Noble County, to install a solar array to generate electricity. And of course those in Noble County and the areas around are trying to position themselves as available to provide the land and the facilities for the manufacture of those panels before they're set in place. So that's a big deal. The nexus of that is Ohio University. Even though I'm a big West Virginia University fan, our local school, the dominant school here, is Ohio University. Biomed, and petrochemicals, they're at the heart of it for our area. It's like the MIT of Appalachia. And they have that attitude and that culture of exploration where scientific curiosity is important.

The Port Authority is working on something called The Ingenuity Center, which will be used to attract companies in the temperature controlled cabinet industry for biomedical and other fields. Could you tell us about that?

If we're just going to be traditional economic development people, we might be able to attract some of the peripheral industries from Columbus, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati. The direction Washington County traditionally has taken is to retain the big industries that emerged here in the '40s, but our isolation has fostered both a creative and an innovative philosophy. The company the Ingenuity Center is responding to -- and there will more more over time -- is a very successful company and the spinoffs of that company, Thermo Fisher Scientific. They make temperature controlled containers for lab samples, vaccines, where it's important to maintain the necessary temperatures. We have three or four businesses that are in this business of containerization. Not just for the medical part, but some are getting into forensics. There are all sorts of things this little cluster can respond to.

You're also collaborating with the Marietta Community Foundation to promote quality of life in the area.

This is a visioning process that the Port Authority and the board chair started with the Marietta Community Foundation, which partners with the Visitors and Convention Bureau, the Small Business Development Center and the Marietta Chamber of Commerce. We all worked together to put together a series of vignettes about Washington County and its quality of life. It promotes positive things, but it also addresses the correctable things that might be deficient in comparison with regions with greater critical mass. People will leave Appalachia, but the tradition is that they come back. We'd like to get them back a little earlier.

Why is there's a Chinese language version of your website?

Marietta College, one of Ohio's older colleges, just finished its 175th or 176th year. They have a very strong emphasis in petrochemicals, and you'd expect that because petrochemicals in our country started here. And we attract an awful lot of students from China. I always hate to see a graduating class because, where they might have stayed before, with the economic opportunities in China, they're now going home. If you look at the demographics of the area it's not an area with strong racial diversity. And to have these students here, and to have students from any other ethnic or national background, is extremely important to us in terms of industrial recruitment, medical recruitment, whatever it might be.

Give me your sales pitch for Washington County.

One of best things we have going is we have an active citizenry. We have people who care about the community. There are opportunities for new companies, and I'll give an example. Across the river -- we can see it from here is a Toyota offshoot, Hino Motors. It's Japanese owned with domestic management and Japanese helping with the culture, but the prime thing hasn't been the numbers (of jobs), or just the workforce, but aspiring people.

The river is an unbelievable resource, one of the most powerful and daunting resources you can have. We have some very, very exceptional business sites, but we also have a problem with the flood plain. So, we have to be creative and look at vertical solutions. We have air service; UPS flies in here, FedEx flies in here. We have a regional airport in which Washington County people actually make government decisions on a Wood County, West Virginia, asset. That doesn't happen any place else in Ohio, so again we're showing that cooperative spirit. And there's a sensitivity toward family, the realization that the education systems at the primary and secondary levels have to be strengthened -- and the realization of older people as assets -- their wisdom is incredible. They are an increasingly larger part of the community, in part due to the demographic, but also because we encourage them to live here because it's a good place even if you've never chanced upon this place ever. This is a place where everybody is accepted. That dynamic of thought and tolerance and understanding is the most important thing about our area.
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