Richland Carrousel Park (copy)

Richland Carrousel Park, built in downtown Mansfield in 1990 and opened in 1991, become the centerpiece for redevelopment and restoration. As a vehicle for downtown development, it was a perfect partnership of public-private funds to spur economic growth and to improve the quality of life in the city.

The American Rescue Plan provides an $85 million-plus opportunity to dramatically improve life in north central Ohio.

We hope the area's county and municipal leaders understand now is the time for bold, dynamic decisions during this once-in-a-lifetime chance that comes as our region emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Richland, Ashland, Knox and Crawford counties will receive $54 million combined. City governments in Mansfield, Ashland, Mount Vernon and Bucyrus will take in another $31 million.

The total for this region exceeds $85 million -- and that doesn't include smaller cities and villages and the dollars they will take from the ARP, such as $1.8 million in Shelby, $1.1 million in Ontario and $900,000 in Lexington.

How much is $85 million to north central Ohio?

The 2021 general fund budgets of Richland County and the City of Mansfield total about $60 million.

In Ashland County and the City of Ashland, combined general fund appropriations for 2021 total about $26 million.

The City of Mount Vernon and Knox County will combine to spend about $30 million in general fund revenue this year.

$85 million is the chance for a transformative investment in north central Ohio.

A massive responsibility

The question is not, "How can we spend this money in the community?"

The approach should be "Who should we involve in deep and thoughtful conversations focused on the best possible results for our community today ... and 25 years into the future?"

This cannot be four people with a spreadsheet in a room taking notes and spitballing ideas, landing on the path of least resistance, or worse yet, trying to please everyone. 

This shouldn't be thought of as a checkbook to be used to buy stuff. It should be an investment fund -- money that can be used to get the best return on that investment. 

Public monies like this are a magnet for private investment when the proper attitude and forethought are included.

If it sounds like a massive responsibility, that's because it is. If you're in elected office right now and you aren't losing sleep while you ponder these decisions and opportunities, you need to rethink the gravity of the job before you.

Don't be afraid to slow way down. Think this through. Acknowledge you need advice and wise counsel across the entire spectrum -- and ask for it.

And then listen.

A terrible price

North central Ohio has paid a fierce and painful price due to the novel coronavirus that swept over us. People have died or been very sick. Many other lives have been inalterably changed. Our children have suffered with schools closed for months on end. We were not able to visit loved ones in nursing homes or hospitals. Businesses have been badly damaged -- some slipped into virtual ruins.

We have been forced to confront forces none of us ever imagined. Nearly 23,000 people in our four-county region have been infected with the virus and nearly 500 died. More than 536,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, including about 18,000 in Ohio.

No amount of money can bring back loved ones or give us back all that we have lost. But, as the mythological Greek phoenix that rose from the ashes, this influx of funds can be a huge step for our communities on the road to recovery.

But that also entails a responsibility -- we must invest it wisely.

What now?

Now is not the time for incremental changes or quick decisions made in a vacuum behind closed doors with little or no public input. Now is not the time to buy more touchless water fountains, laptops, tools and hardware aimed at helping us all stay safe at home.

Now is not the time for local elected officials to believe only they know best on how to spend $50 million that will flow into local coffers during 2021.

Given the unknowns and timelines of 2020, we believe local officials did the best they could to spend CARES Act funds during 2020.

Yet the American Recovery Plan is different. The total pool of funds is much larger. It doesn't look like there will be as many strings attached to the money. The timeline for expending the funds will be much longer, years instead of months.

We hope elected officials see the great potential and great responsibility before them.

So what is it time for?

Now is the time for mayors, county commissioners, city councils and village councils to work together in a way north central Ohio residents have never seen.

It's time for broad, bold strokes and out-of-the-box thinking.

It's time for everyone to participate in the conversation -- business and industry leaders, charitable foundations and non-profits, entrepreneurs, health care leaders, educational leaders, union leaders, and yes, local residents.

We strongly urge elected leaders to make their decisions in a collaborative, inclusive process that allows a wide range of voices in a transparent approach.

North central Ohio is in a position to bounce back from this pandemic in a powerful way. We are better positioned than many geographic locations to quickly restart. Local governmental entities survived the pandemic in admirable fashion.

Our message to area elected officials is clear: You are being given a great chance to set the right path for years, even decades, to come.

Will you be the leaders your voters thought and hoped they had selected for leadership positions? 

We will all be watching how you respond.

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