Before millions of dollars started flowing into her rural community, Lova Ebbert remembers setting out a can to collect donations from fellow farmers for the evening’s use of a local meeting room.
“Fortunately, we were blessed. There was always enough,” she laughed, remembering how modestly her journey began.
What they saw coming would alter their lives.
The oil and gas industry, fueled by advances in the drilling technique known as fracking, was starting to explore eastern Ohio’s deep underground shale formations.
By sticking together, this small group of landowners hoped to embrace what they saw as inevitable change in order to protect their community for future generations.
“We knew that (oil and gas exploration) was going to be here,” Ebbert said. “And we were going to work with the industry to make the best situation possible.”
But as a result of unfavorable lease agreements, some farmers were practically giving away the right to drill on their land, and the contracts were “horrible” from an environmental perspective, she said.
So Ebbert’s small volunteer group began to reach out to more landowners. With enough support, they figured they could effectively engage with oil and gas company executives. After reviewing safety and environmental records, the group found a prospective partner with Rice Energy of Pennsylvania.
Some nights, negotiations lasted until early morning hours. Committee members were stretched out on the floor as phone calls went back and forth. When hundreds of landowners packed an auditorium to evaluate an offer from Rice, cell phones interrupted as other companies tried to undercut the deal.
“It was an awesome experience,” said Ebbert, who, when not negotiating with oil companies, runs a family farm market.
In the end, the group held together: Landowners would get paid fairly and have environmental safeguards in place. But Ebbert wasn’t done.
Another committee member, Gabe Hays, had reminded her of a promise they had made.
“We said if we ever get this pulled off, we’re going to come up with a vehicle where we can do good for Belmont County,” Ebbert said.
With $25,000 in seed money from Rice Energy, the committee established the Smith-Goshen Rice Enrichment Fund as a way for landowners who had financially benefited from oil and gas exploration to help keep their community strong.
“None of us ever anticipated this,” Ebbert said. “So this is our opportunity to give back and make our community a better place to live and work.”
All of the money from the fund is directed to local groups that aim to improve the life of Belmont County residents. That has included helping fund food pantries, an emergency room at the local hospital, lift equipment for fire departments, shelters for women and children and an American Legion museum.
Since it was launched in late 2014, the enrichment fund has raised more than $200,000.
“We have far more requests for funds than we have funds,” Ebbert said. “But we’re trying to get the word out and develop a spirit of philanthropy in people, letting them realize: This is your community. If we don’t make it better, who is going to?”
Susie Nelson finds that type of attitude refreshing. She’s executive director of the Community Foundation for the Ohio Valley, which helps distribute grants and scholarships for the Smith-Goshen Rice Enrichment Fund and other organizations.
“Of the eight counties we serve, Belmont is one of the largest geography wise but smallest in terms of grant money available,” Nelson said. “The needs are great but there is not a lot of philanthropy for the county. That’s why this fund is so important. The money from natural resources is staying in the county.”
Ebbert says she’s pleased if community members choose to contribute to other local causes, but she hopes the enrichment fund will provide an example of how people working together can effectively make a difference.
“The plan is to grow a fund that’s endowed and will last in perpetuity,” Nelson said. “Growing to make the fund sustainable is really important. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
For Ebbert, she’s well aware that the energy boom won’t last forever and thinks often about the legacy that the enrichment fund could have.
“We want this to be here 20, 40, 50 years from now so people can look back and say ‘This group really was looking ahead and encouraging people to contribute and give.’”
How to avoid the ‘natural resource curse’
It’s a scenario economists have seen time and time again – the boom and then dreaded bust after an area goes through an economic windfall created by an influx in natural resources. Economists refer to it as the “natural resource curse.”
“I think of it a lot like winning the lottery and you have all this newfound wealth and what could go wrong and you go back five years and how many of them declared bankruptcy and had real difficulties. A lot of this is the same for a community,” said Mark Partridge, professor of agricultural, environmental and development economics at Ohio State University. He spoke on Town Hall Ohio, Ohio Farm Bureau’s public issues
“Economists make a very compelling case that if you take out that natural resource, you have to replace it with something else permanently,” he said. “Once you take it out of the ground, it’s no longer there.”
Partridge, who is the C. William Swank chair of Rural-Urban Policy, was one of the authors of the report, “Making Shale Development Work for Ohio.” He recommends communities try to mitigate an economic bust by investing in human capital (increase education and job skills levels), diversifying its economy, putting in the appropriate amount of infrastructure (overbuilding is costly to maintain and repair) and building a heritage fund to fund long-term projects for long-term prosperity.
Published in the January/February 2016 issue of Our Ohio.
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Photos by Jodi Miller