When Ed Haines, the mayor of economically depressed Malta, Ohio, heard late last year that a local bank was making a big economic development announcement, his first thought was, "Well, here comes a $500 check."
But when the announcement came, First National Bank of McConnelsville surprised Mr. Haines. Instead of money, First National donated its top lending officer.
Today, John Wilson is nine months into his one-year term as Morgan County's economic development guru. He works directly for the county, trying to generate business in the area. But the bank is paying his salary and benefits - not to mention forfeiting his stewardship of the bank's $30 million loan portfolio - for one year.
Mr. Haines, who also operates Malta General Store and is running for county commissioner this fall, said an economic development coordinator is vital to the community, which has high unemployment. "What we need to do in Morgan County is not raise the taxes on the people here," he said. "We need to get more people here paying taxes."
That the $53 million-asset bank took a lead role in trying to improve its community's fortunes shouldn't be surprising, participants said.
"I think the public perception is that banks are the leaders in the community, and (people) look toward them in any distressed situation or any time there is a need," said Mr. Wilson, a 20-year banker who has been executive vice president at First National. "I'm just happy it happened to be our bank that took the lead on that."
The need to improve development in Morgan County in southeastern Ohio was obvious. Leading the state in unemployment, 13.3% of its residents were unemployed, compared with 4.9% in all of Ohio and 5.3% nationally, Mr. Wilson said.
With a population of 14,000, the county has led the state in unemployment "for quarters and quarters and quarters," said Rod Gallagher, First National's president and chief executive.
A local furniture factory moved out in May. It had 60 employees, down from 100 employees in recent years, said Bob Grove, chairman of the Morgan County commissioners.
The area has been hit especially hard in the last decade by a downturn in the coal industry, which for most of the county's life has been its primary source of jobs. The Clean Air Act led to reductions in staff and production, closing down some local mines, Mr. Wilson said.
Because it had no formal economic development effort, last year the county put forth a referendum on a special homeowner assessment tax that would have raised $100,000 to fund an economic development office.
The measure was defeated, but Mr. Gallagher, who joined the bank two years ago, had already decided to take action. He recalled a utility company in his native West Virginia that several years ago paid one of its executives to be an economic development point man for a depressed county.
So he approached Mr. Wilson, 49, an area native who served on the water board and is well known in the community.
Mr. Gallagher stressed that Mr. Wilson reports to and works with county officials, not the bank. "I thought that was the only way ... that there would be credibility."
Mr. Wilson works out of the bank's space, but his incidental expenses are paid for by the county. Each Monday, he reports his efforts directly to the commissioners.
Mr. Wilson has several goals for his year as economic development coordinator. He wants to establish enterprise zones that provide abatements from local property and income taxes for new or expanding businesses. He's also looking for potential industrial sites, including one targeted for an industrial park. Among other things, he also is visiting all county businesses as well as nearby business that might expand. He also hopes to increase tourism around the county's river.
So far this year, five additional communities have applied for enterprise zone status, he said. He's identified 13 potential industrial sites and met with businesses that have shown an interest in moving in, including a furniture manufacturer.
He has also helped procure $60,000 in state money for site studies on a proposed industrial park.
He's getting good marks so far from local officials. "John is an excellent guy, but his background is not economic development," Mr. Haines said. "To be thrown into it like this, I think he has done an excellent job. The ice is broken now, and it wouldn't have gotten broken without the bank."
"He's been a fantastic boost for us," Mr. Grove said.
At First National, a loan department vice president took over Mr. Wilson's duties this year, Mr. Gallagher said. "We've all kind of pulled together and tried to help out."
Mr. Gallagher said he believes that economic growth for the county will make up for expenses incurred by the bank. "Even though it cost us John's salary, and benefits, and the loss of his productivity as executive vice president, the county got $60,000 of it back, hopefully more," he said.
The future of the economic development coordinator is unclear at this point. Mr. Wilson said he intends to return to the bank next year as planned, though there has been talk of him staying on the job.
"Our offer was for 1996," Mr. Gallagher said. "What happens from December, we don't know yet." The bank wants to open a new community development department and hopes to benefit from Mr. Wilson's experience, he said.
Mr. Wilson expects the county's efforts to continue regardless. "I'm hearing good comments from people who like what I've done and feel it is necessary."
Terence O'Hara contributed to this article.