Cleveland area might not qualify for development grants

CLEVELAND - Industry-intensive Cuyahoga County and other areas short on open spaces may be left behind if proposed rules for a program to make Ohio competitive in developing new business are adopted.

The proposal for the Ohio Job Ready Sites program says projects must have at least 150 acres available to qualify for grant money. The state will sign off on the final version of the rules next month.

"They're essentially cutting us out of the program," Claire Kilbane of the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission said last week at an annual meeting between mayors and county officials in suburban Brecksville.

Voters in November approved a $2 billion ballot issue to sell bonds primarily for road and highway construction and to start up high-tech businesses. It also included $150 million to help prepare sites for development. Ohioans approved the issue with 55 percent of the vote, including 63 percent approval in Cuyahoga County.

The 150-acre minimum applies to research and development projects. More than 250 acres would be required for office complexes and manufacturing plants, 600 acres for larger manufacturing plants and 1,000 acres for distribution sites, under the proposed rules.

Projects could receive up to $5 million for building demolition and the installation of utility lines and roads.

However, heavily developed urban counties such as Cuyahoga would be lucky to put together 30 to 50 acres for a project, county officials said. The price of land, fragmented ownership and pollution cleanup could also drive the costs beyond $5 million, they said.

Pepper Pike Mayor Bruce Akers said the program would further push jobs and population to suburban and rural areas where empty land is plentiful.

Cuyahoga County voters might not have supported the issue if they had known it could weaken the county's economy, county Development Director Paul Oyaski said.

"This is clearly taxation without common sense," he said

The program was nurtured after Ohio lost out to Alabama for South Korean-owned Hyundai's $1 billion auto plant in 2002, and after voters defeated a similar high-tech development ballot issue in 2003.

The Ohio Department of Development used three consultants, including the suburban Cleveland-based Austin Co., to develop the rules, spokeswoman Melissa Ament said.

The department may revise the program before applications are distributed in mid-May, Ament said. She would not specify how the acreage figures were calculated, saying state officials did not want to cause "further confusion."

"It was just a draft document," Ament said. "Those guidelines are still being developed. They are still subject to change."

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