Highland County Commission President Shane Wilkin said Monday he is “incredibly frustrated” at a division of the U.S. Department of Justice for the holdup that has kept an $844,000 grant for Rocky Fork Lake in limbo.
Meanwhile, Highland County Sheriff Donnie Barrera said Monday that a deputy who was scheduled to be headquartered permanently at Rocky Fork is no longer stationed there because of the holdup with the grant dollars that were supposed to pay for the assignment.
As The Times-Gazette reported last October, the grant has been put on hold due to officials with the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program of the Justice Department questioning the creation of a land bank as part of the grant.
Contacted Monday, Wilkin said that local officials are now being told that a land bank is not permitted as part of the grant, with federal officials saying the bank was not included with the original grant application. In fact, Wilkin said, the land bank was mentioned 29 times in the implementation plan submitted as part of the grant request.
Wilkin said the office of U.S. Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-2nd District) has been assisting the county in trying to get clarification from the Justice Department, with little luck so far. Wilkin said Wenstrup’s office told him it has “been frustrated with the lack of response to us.”
Adding to the level of urgency is the fact that the grant is scheduled to “term out” in October, although an extension is possible.
Wilkin said that for months, each time the county would inquire about the status of the grant, a federal official would respond, “It’s still with legal.”
“I finally told them, ‘If this were my attorney I’d fire them,’” said Wilkin.
Wilkin said he has offered “to fly out (to Washington) for a face to face.” He said he wants to ask, “What happened here? Why did this happen?”
The $844,000 Rocky Fork Lake project was designed to 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.
The project started locally as the Rocky Fork Lake Area Safety and Advancement Planning Process (RFL-ASAP). Beginning with a series of meetings starting in December 2014, the sessions involved as many as 60 county officials, business owners and others. The grant award announced in October 2016 was considered a major victory for Highland County, and particularly the lake area.
While the county commissioners were the official grant applicants, LuAnn Winkle, director of the Turning Point Applied Learning Center, was the driving force behind winning the grant, which was one of just a handful of similar grants awarded across the United States. The implementation plan for the funds was seemingly approved in early 2017.
Winkle, who was serving as the site coordinator, said in February 2017 that she saw 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 were to 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.
As part of the grant, Barrera planned to station a deputy full-time at the lake, working out of office space donated by the Rockhold, Brown and Company Bank branch located on North Shore Drive. A ceremony was held Feb. 16, 2017 at the bank for the sheriff’s office to take possession of the office space, as well as receive a donated cruiser from Fayette County for the lake patrol.
Barrera said Monday he is still keeping a deputy on patrol at the lake as often as possible, but “we just don’t have the 40 hours a week” for a full-time deputy to be stationed there as originally planned. He said the bank office remains available if circumstances change.
The grant award is still viewable on the Bureau of Justice Assistance website, and states that its status remains “open.”
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @AbernathyGary.