From: State Senator Chris Widener
Ohio 10th Senate District
As a state legislator, I’ve been around government and politics long enough to know that no matter what you do, someone will find a way to disagree. Recently, legislative action I took to bring jobs to people in my district drew criticism from some in the media. But I won’t apologize for fighting for people in Clark, Greene and Madison counties.
Here’s the issue. I’ve been a professional architect for 23 years. It’s how I support my family and I work hard at it. My role as a public official is in addition to this career.
My architecture firm has designed several livestock expo facilities in five states, due to my personal experience with managing some of the largest equine shows in US. We know how to design, build, and operate these types of facilities and often are sought out on these kinds of projects nationwide.
Because of that experience, I was approached in 1995 to help transform the Clark County fairgrounds into something that could attract more tourists and offer better amenities to the youth showing at our county fair. This was 7 years prior to being elected to the general assembly.
From 1995 to 2004, my firm did the design and construction management work that helped build what is now known as the Champions Center, at the Clark County Fairgrounds. It’s a venue for horse shows, rodeos, concerts, and other national attractions.
Clark County is the birthplace of 4-H and we take our role to honor that legacy seriously. I believed so much in the potential for this not-for-profit facility that I joined several other community leaders in guaranteeing that the loan that helped fund the project would be paid. None of us were promised or interested in getting anything in return. In fact, excess revenue from the center’s operations goes to the county fairgrounds and the Clark County youth, not any individuals.
No state or local tax dollars were used to build the project. The only public monies were federal earmark grants from then-Congressman Dave Hobson, who supported the project.
We wanted to assist this undertaking, which we all believed could bring much-needed job growth to our area. And, many of us agreed to serve on the governing board of the Center as well.
Travel and tourism is the lifeblood of Clark County, with a $300 Million a year economic impact, and employing nearly 5,000 people.
That’s why in 2009, the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau approached me and State Representative Ross McGregor to see if the state legislature could give legislative authority to counties the size of Clark and Greene to create and establish their own Convention Facilities Authority (CFA). Such an authority works to attract tourists and raises funds for county tourism spots with a hotel tax. Many larger counties already had state permission to do this but medium and smaller counties had sometimes been overlooked in the state legislative process.
Local officials, not any one in state government including me, have directed where hotel tax revenue is spent. I’m a Republican, but the majority Democrats on the Clark County Commissioners and the Democrat Mayor of Springfield established the convention authority with their own appointees, who developed their own grant process to decide what convention facilities received the funds. This is just one example of the bi-partisan community support this process has had from its beginnings. And it’s unfortunate no media outlet chose to report these crucial facts.
As I considered helping Clark County and other counties with legislation that could benefit tourist attractions, I realized that someone might try to suggest I was acting with a conflict of interest.
That’s precisely why, in early May of 2009, I resigned from the board that governs the Champions Center, prior to pursuing any legislation.
I even went further than that. The guarantee I’d signed stated that it could be cancelled with notification to the bank. I cancelled my guarantee. And from that moment forward, I’ve had no connection with or responsibility for the Champions Center.
I have reviewed these actions with the best ethics and legal counsel available, and have been assured all requirements of the law necessary to avoid any definite and direct benefit were met.
You might think that with such a clean break; even the most cynical of critics would be satisfied. But, not in today’s world.
Last week – more than three years after I severed my relationship with the Champions Center, unnamed critics emerged to claim that a complete separation of my responsibilities somehow wasn’t enough. This resulted in a news story in Cleveland that has since been reprinted and rehashed in other news outlets.
I never had anything to personally gain from this legislation, but people in my district sure did. Dozens of new jobs were created at the Champions Center, and to date the center alone is responsible for more than $20 million in positive economic impact to our county.
As a licensed architect and a legislator, I take my ethical responsibilities seriously. In fact, during my time in the legislature, I’ve asked for numerous ethics opinions from the Joint Legislative Ethics Commission, to be sure I stay well clear of any ethical conflicts. Indeed, there have been numerous times when I’ve recused myself from a legislative vote to avoid even the appearance of a conflict.
I’m proud of how I fought to bring more jobs to my district but I’m saddened that these efforts have become the fodder for the political grinder that deters so many good people from choosing public service.