Athens County Commissioners candidates focus on jobs during the League of Women Voters’ forum

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) – Creating job opportunities was the major talking point of all three candidates at the Athens County Commissioner’s Forum on Thursday evening.

The event, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Athens County, is part of the League’s candidate forum series leading up to the November election. Candidates Alex Burcher (R), incumbent Lenny Eliason (D), and Bill Hayes (I) were each given the opportunity to address questions posed to them by the audience.

The candidates fielded questions from the audience ranging from economic development and environmental issues to the overpopulation of deer and rental protections, but nearly every issue in the 90-minute forum came back to one issue: jobs.

Independent candidate Bill Hayes said that the focus on business needs to be from inside and outside the county.

“One, we need to bring more businesses to this county. Both home-grown businesses and other businesses that we can attract to this county. We’ve got to raise the mean family income in this county,” Hayes said.

Hayes is an alumnus of both Ohio University and Ohio State University. He is an environmentalist with a background in business and has volunteered extensively with the Bailey’s Trail System. Hayes said that if elected he hopes to work to diversify the types of businesses in the county.

He’d also like to focus on working with Fortune 500 companies to create incentives for their employees to live in Athens. Hayes believes that Ohio University alumni would take advantage of living in Athens not only for their love of the community but for the lower cost of living compared to where major companies are often located.

“Unlike San Francisco and D.C. they could actually afford to buy their own home and raise kids,” Hayes said.

Democratic incumbent Lenny Eliason wants to make sure that Athens County is an affordable place to raise children for everyone.

“Attracting jobs that pay living wages is really the key,” Eliason said. “One of the things that we look at over the course of time is what it takes to raise a family in the county, and we have to make sure that they are paying those wages.”

Eliason has served as a county commissioner since 1998 and serves on multiple boards around the region including the Buckeye Regional Council and the Appalachian Development Corporation. He also pointed to continuing current county projects as a way to expand the local economy, like the current broadband project in Amesville.

Republican candidate Alex Burcher said he believes in focusing on the area’s natural resources to improve economic development. He also would like to investigate the extraction industry as a way to bring back jobs, specifically citing coal mining.

“I strongly believe that tourism and infrastructure and jobs are probably my first three points as a commissioner,” Burcher said.

All three candidates agreed that the natural resources of Athens County is one of the area’s biggest strengths. Each promoted the Bailey’s Trail System as a great example of what can be done to bring more people to the area to enjoy the outdoors. A question from the audience regarding the deer population also brought up the idea of eco-tourism.

“The deer population is a little bit out of hand down here, but it’s also a tremendous economic opportunity,” Hayes said. “Eco-tourism just isn’t about looking at trees.”

Burcher also supported the idea of more hunters in the area, but Eliason was quick to point out that the issue is outside of the scope of the county.

“Clearly, we have to work with ODNR to allow more harvesting of the deer. We do have a problem, but it’s regulated by the state,” Eliason said.

All three candidates shared with the audience why they are seeking election.

At 25 years old, Burcher is the youngest candidate and least amount of formal education, having gone straight from high school to the workforce. He hopes to give the workforce a say in county politics.

“In my 25 years of life I’ve learned that the person who gets up and goes to work every day – whether it’s in this county or an hour away, or the farmer, or just a working person – it never seems like that person has a say at the table. I come from the people, I’m for the people, by the people,” Burcher said.

Hayes’ love of the area is what drove him to seek office.

“I love Athens county. I’ve been all over the country This is the most beautiful place in America I’ve ever been with the perspective of living on a day-to-day basis. However, we have serious, long-term issues. We’ve been at the bottom of the economic ladder in the state of Ohio for as long as I can remember and there’s no reason for it. We’re resource-rich, we have people who desperately want jobs we need to do a better job of supporting the people in the outlying county,” Hayes said.

For the incumbent, the election represents continuing the work that he has done for over two decades.

“I’ve been doing it for 24 years and I want to continue doing it because I enjoy making my community a better place to live, work and play,” Eliason said.

The last day to register to vote is Oct. 11. The election will be held on Nov. 8. To find your polling location or to find out if you are registered, visit