Rocky Fork project could help make lake ‘economic engine for Highland County’


The new $844,000 Rocky Fork Lake project could help the lake become “the economic engine for Highland County,” fight the “inordinate amount of crime” in parts of the lake region, and serve as a model “to be replicated in other areas,” according to the project’s site coordinator.

LuAnn Winkle said Tuesday she has been encouraged by the fact that “everyone wants to see it be successful,” and also defended the role of non-profits which have come together to implement the lake project and other activities.

At The Times-Gazette’s request, Winkle shared the budget for the project and sat down Tuesday morning for an interview at the newspaper office.

According to budget documents, over the course of two years the grant will fund:

• $295,094 in salaries and fringe benefits.

• $521,554 for consultants and contracts to tackle economic development and crime-fighting efforts.

• $22,714 for travel expenses.

• $4,136 for supplies.

Winkle is director of the Turning Point Applied Learning Center and was the driving force behind winning the grant from the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. The grant was won last October – one of just a handful of similar grants awarded across the United States – and the implementation plan for the funds was approved just a couple of weeks ago.

As site coordinator, Winkle will be paid $75,000 a year for the next two years. Turning Point is contributing $15,000 a year toward that amount, and her role at Turning Point will be reduced to just one day a week while she focuses on the lake project. The money she is paid as site coordinator will represent her total pay for both overseeing the lake project and her Turning Point duties, she said.

Meanwhile, $263,500 in contracts will go to the Highland County Community Action Organization, including $197,500 to create, operate and fund a new land bank in the county, and $66,000 to expand CAO nutrition and other services to the lake region, including onsite services.

Winkle sees the land bank as a main component necessary to acquiring and cleaning up areas of the lake that have fallen into blight or resulted in unattractive detriments to economic growth at Rocky Fork.

At least during the two-year life of the grant, the land bank funds must be targeted only to the lake region, said Winkle. In other Ohio counties, land banks have improved local economies through efforts such as rehabilitating distressed or abandoned properties by turning them into useful sites for office space, retail centers or recreation facilities, often by partnering with local hospitals, schools or other entities for community improvement projects.

Another salary-related part of the grant provides $38,000 a year for a full-time sheriff’s deputy at the lake. On Thursday, Highland County Sheriff Donnie Barrera will participate in a ceremony at Rockhold-Brown Bank’s Northshore Drive location, where he will accept the keys to part of the bank building that will serve as a sheriff substation, along with the keys to a cruiser being donated by the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office.

A key component of the grant is $90,356 set aside for a consultant to create an economic development plan for the lake. Winkle said the consultant has not yet been determined, but it will be “a professional firm specializing in economic development in rural areas.” She said “a couple of good candidates” are under consideration.

Winkle said that part of creating an economic development plan for the lake is agreeing on a shared vision and purpose for the lake region.

“We’re fortunate to have a blank slate here,” she said. “Is it a sportsman or recreation destination? A family vacation getaway?” She said that just as important as identifying the positive attributes of the lake is avoiding the negative ones.

Winkle spent much of Tuesday’s interview defending the role of non-profits in both the lake project and other areas, especially after comments by Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings were raised. At Monday’s city council meeting, Hastings was critical of FRS Transportation and what he described as the growing influence of non-profits, an influence he said was often at odds with economic development goals of city planners.

Winkle had high praise for Julia Wise, the executive director of the local Community Action Organization, which will play a large role in the lake project. She said Hastings and others have a misconception that non-profits like CAO don’t do enough to break the cycle of poverty and dependence. Hastings did not mention CAO by name on Monday.

“I don’t know anyone who talks more about breaking the cycle than Julia,” said Winkle. But she said it was important to make the distinction between “situational poverty” and “generational poverty.”

Winkle serves on the CAO board, and said Wise operates one of “the most well-run and efficient non-profits.” She said Wise is “motivated by a passion to empower people, not keep people down.” When it comes to the cycle of poverty, “Julia is an outspoken advocate for changing that,” said Winkle.

She said CAO is perhaps the only local organization with the expertise to perform duties such as operating the new land bank, and it was CAO’s involvement in the proposal that helped win the overall grant.

She said CAO’s increased presence at the lake will lead to a healthier population, especially among children, and she also spoke up for FRS Transportation. She said that providing a means for lake residents to travel for employment purposes or attend doctor appointments is crucial, as well as the ability to grocery shop in Hillsboro because they will eat healthier than if their only option is “a frozen pizza” from a nearby convenience store.

Winkle said that addressing issues of poverty and crime are crucial to helping the Rocky Fork region turn its fortunes around. Her experience at Turning Point in helping people re-enter society has led her to understand the need to break old habits, she said.

“It’s about peer association and the neighborhood they live in,” she said. “Who are they coming home to?” She said that in developing the lake plan, project managers talked to the courts, probation officials and others about how to break certain cycles.

She said that in Hillsboro, 30 percent of the city lives in poverty, “and it’s roughly the same in the county.” She said the loss of DHL in Wilmington as a major employer and the general economic downturn of 2008 is still impacting the community, and “rural communities don’t recover as quickly as others.”

She said the region is “fortunate to have non-profits that seek dollars that are not available to units of government. Without them, the local governments are on the hook.”

Winkle said, “Many taxpayers want less government and lower taxation. Non-profits are often supported wholly or partially through private donations, creating the situation whereby the government is not Big Brother, and people are voluntarily helping their fellow citizens.”

She said the goal over the next two years at the lake is to create and then “sustain the momentum.”

A “large stakeholder” meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. to noon on Feb. 27 at the Hi-Tec Conference Center in Hillsboro. A project update will be provided, along with determining the next steps. Winkle is inviting anyone to attend, even if they have not attended previous meetings. She said she wants to continue the success enjoyed so far with everyone coming together for a common purpose in regard to making Rocky Fork Lake the county jewel many have long believed it can be.

“Sometimes all you need is something the community can coalesce around,” said Winkle.

Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.

Community Action plays large role in two-year project

By Gary Abernathy

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