Eliason, Burcher and Hayes talk climate change, broadband and the future of Athens in commissioner forum — The New Political

Jack Slemenda and Zach Hampu contributed to this report.

The League of Women Voters hosted a forum for the Athens County Commissioner candidates at the Athens Community Center on Oct. 6. Each candidate had the opportunity to answer questions from a range of topics. A few topics mentioned were: the Athens economy outside of Ohio University, the global warming issue in Athens, the high deer population in Athens county, growing broadband across the county and where Ohio U students help the community.

The candidates for this year’s election include: incumbent Democrat Lenny Eliason, Alex Burcher running as a Republican and Bill Hayes running as a nonpartisan.

The forum began with opening statements from each candidate starting with incumbent commissioner Lenny Eliason. Eliason has been the Athens County Commissioner since 1998. He is an alumnus of Ohio University and is the former president of both the National Association of Counties and the County Commissioners Association of Ohio.

Eliason continues to serve as a member of the board for both of these organizations today. In addition to these two organizations, Eliason is the chair of the Athens County Economic Development Council in the Appalachian Development Corporation. He is also a board member of the Outdoor Recreation Council of Appalachia (ORCA).

Alex Burcher had a considerably shorter resume, briefly noting his high school diploma and membership in the Business Professionals of America. Burcher hails from Nelsonville and at 25 years old, he was the youngest of the present candidates.

I have emphasized his connection with the people of Athens County. Shortly into the forum, Burcher explained his reason for running for County Commissioner as simply, “the person who gets up and goes to work every day… It never seems like that person has a say.”

Bill Hayes, who is running as an independent, is also an Ohio University alumnus, where he studied Zoology before going on to do more work at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center at Ohio State University. He also pointed to his experience of him as a local outdoorsman and entrepreneur. Hayes has a diverse job experience and noted his involvement with the Baileys Trail System and other local volunteer work.

The candidates were asked a series of questions from a moderator as well as a few questions from the media present.

One of the key questions asked by the forum’s moderator, Laura O’Neil was, “What do you think is the best chance at diversifying the economy beyond just Ohio University?”

Burcher stated that Athens is never going to be able to give up on Ohio University. He believes all Athens residents need to come together to utilize the land they have, finding a way to economically prosper from the beautiful scenery and materials that surround them.

Hayes followed by saying how Athens county is not using the work that comes out of Ohio University efficiently. He hopes to change that, should he be elected. However, he did mention that when Ohio U has major layoffs it causes a shock to the economy and that it should be prevented from going forward.

Eliason closed the question by stating how an increase in recreational opportunities as well as continuing to work on broadband will ultimately help the economy.

The candidates were later asked how they would address global warming and plastic pollution.

Eliason answered first, noting efforts to reduce the county government’s emissions, such as the net-zero carbon emissions emergency medical services (EMS) station and potentially electric police cruisers in the future.

Burcher followed, calling for a continuation of the current county policies. Burcher also pushed for more precautionary research on the companies the county employs and land that the county plans to build on.

Hayes voiced a different opinion. He noted his own environmentalist efforts but said “that’s not going to be much more than a drop in the bucket in the county. It’s up to people. We have to lead by example and help them” about the current environmental policies.

Hayes instead called for a focus on increasing economic activity and raising the mean income, so residents can afford more fuel-efficient vehicles and better home insulation.

The deer population has been a growing concern for Athens County. Candidates were asked how they viewed the situation and what should be done about it.

“I spent the better part of my teenage years with a muzzleloader in one hand and a tomahawk in the other,” Hayes said. “We need to attract more tourists (hunters), we have a problem here and they have a solution.”

Eliason stated that Athens County needs to work more closely with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) for harvesting the deer.

“We do have a problem, but it’s regulated by the state so that situation is not something we can control at the local level,” Eliason said.

Burcher sees the deer population problem as a way to educate.

“Having a high deer problem is a hunter problem,” Burcher said. “In my generation alone, the hunting thing has kind of died off. I’m sure there’s plenty of boys out in Trimble that would love to have that education (pertaining to hunting).”

Many in Athens County do not have affordable access to broadband internet, so how the candidates planned to promote the expansion of broadband in the county was a topic of discussion.

Hayes argued that the technology to provide internet access to everyone in the county is not here yet, but he was hopeful about the potential of 5G. He instead plans to focus on providing large, high-powered routers to all schools and libraries in Athens County.

Eliason followed with a description of his prior efforts in this area and vision for the future.

He said that the current plan is to work with Amesville and bring broadband there.

Eliason went on to explain the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction done by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This fund will allow many areas in Athens County to receive broadband access.

“You will see a huge increase in the next few years of broadband in the county,” Eliason said.

Burcher discussed his meeting with the Washington County commissioner, in which he discovered the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) grant through the Buckeye Hills Regional Council Broadband Committee. Burcher plans to pursue this grant, noting that broadband access would only give more opportunities to the Athens youth in the classroom.

The forum then opened to the media for their questions before a final question and closing remarks. The New Political asked the candidates where they thought Ohio U students can make their presence known, and how they can help the Athens community/economy.

Hayes mentioned how there are plenty of volunteer opportunities that Ohio U students can get involved with, including supporting a bicycle club. There currently is a contract with Chauncey where bikes are donated and dispersed to the children of Chauncey. The project is in need of more bikes and would love the support of Ohio U students with this project.

Eliason went on to say how students should look to embrace the entire community, not just one part of it.

“It’s a matter of getting away from Court Street and getting involved in the community. It’s important to experience the whole community, embrace the community,” Eliason said. “I think you’ll find over the years when you deal with the student community of the university, the more they’re involved in the area the more they like it.”

Burcher expressed how students can get involved with county level internships. He also stated that it can be tough for high schools in the county to find people to work Friday night football games.

“They struggle on weekends to get people to show up and work the food district and take money from the game,” Burcher said. “It’s a struggle, and I think that if you guys (Ohio U students) utilize your time at some local high schools or local schools in your community you guys can form a close bond.”

The final question of the forum pertained to the future of Athens. Each candidate was asked how they see the future of Athens county.

Burcher talked about what he has heard personally from Athens County residents.

“The biggest thing that people said was, ‘I want my road fixed or a better job or I want a job,’ so those are the crucial points that I want to focus on as commissioner.”

Hayes stated how he wants “to see economic development activities spread more broadly across the county to raise the standard of living across the county.”

Hayes believes there is a lot of untapped potential, and by combining the materials Athens has, “we can conquer a global market.”

Eliason closed out the forum with, “I hope that in 20 years we say, “Athens is a vibrant, thriving community that’s diversified its economy and continued to grow without losing its natural beauty.””

The 2022 election will be held on Nov. 8.

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