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Visionary Gene L. MacDonald

by Fred D. Baldwin

The most important thing," says Gene L. MacDonald, explaining three remarkably productive decades as president of a local development district in Appalachian Ohio, "is developing a trust among the local government officials that regional cooperation works. We celebrate the successes of our neighbors."

MacDonald, founding president of the Ohio Mid-Eastern Governments Association (OMEGA), this spring received the 1998 John D. Whisman Vision Award, presented annually by the Development District Association of Appalachia (DDAA) in memory of John Whisman, an east Kentuckian and one of the chief architects of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).

Regional cooperation has certainly worked for OMEGA, which serves ten counties in eastern Ohio. Between its creation in 1967 (under a different name) and 1997, the years of MacDonald's presidency, the organization launched over 400 projects in partnership with ARC. The projects covered a wide range of economic development efforts—access roads, water and sewer lines, vocational-technical school support, and health-care and child-development services. Valued at $206 million, the projects were funded in part by $57 million in ARC grants.

Although most of MacDonald's professional career has been in Ohio, he grew up in Ellwood City, a steel-mill town north of Pittsburgh. The oldest of ten children, he majored in journalism in college but soon after graduation became manager of the chamber of commerce in Clarion, Pennsylvania.

"That meant," he says, "that I cut the stencils. I put up the Christmas lights. I ran the parades. And I got a tremendous education in economic development."

What it also meant was that MacDonald became deeply involved in planning and advocating for better highways, including what is now Interstate 80, which runs east and west through Clarion and Sharon, on the western edge of Pennsylvania. He also helped other local chambers make the case for better roads throughout Pennsylvania's coal regions.

In 1966 he accepted an economic development job in Zanesville, Ohio, and immediately became impressed with the potential of the newly created ARC. He played a lead role in helping OMEGA's precursor get an early start.

"I figured this was a vehicle to help the community in the long run," he says. "I was elected to the job [of president]. I've just been fortunate to be in the right place in the right time to help the region make progress."

There's a bit more to it than that, say those who've worked closely with MacDonald over the years.

"When you're close to it, it's hard to realize how remarkable the change has been over 30 years," says Donald Myers, director of the Belmont County Department of Development, who succeeded MacDonald as OMEGA president. "We lost over 6,000 coal-mining jobs, but we've been able to grow and change. Gene and the OMEGA planning district were a very important part of that."

"He has a tremendous amount of energy," says Lynn Willett, president of the Muskingum Area Technical College in Zanesville. "He's been on my board for 20 or so years and chairman for the last year and a half. He's a wonderful advocate for a better economic climate in this region." (In May 1995, MacDonald received a special achievement award from the Ohio Association of Community Colleges, a group he helped organize.)

Daniel L. Neff, formerly Ohio Governor George V. Voinovich's ARC state alternate and now executive director of OMEGA, adds that MacDonald's comment on building trust is characteristic of his career: "Gene always said that the most important thing is not the projects, but the bringing together of communities and counties to work together in concert as opposed to against one another."

Currently, MacDonald handles physician recruitment for Genesis HealthCare System, formed by a merger of two 100-year-old hospitals. He describes some of the changes the hospitals have had to make to survive and then adds: "What is important is that local people are making that determination, not someone from the outside who has only profit in mind and no interest in the people and the services being provided."

In conversation with MacDonald, it's a close call whether you'll more often hear the word "cooperation" or the phrase "long-run perspective." Describing his lifelong work with highways and access roads, he says: "Some of those roads took 30 years to get built. So you have to have vision and perspective. But if you persevere and hang in there, things get done."

MacDonald had a major coronary at age 46, but that seems scarcely to have slowed him down. Associates suggest that he slowed only slightly when, five years ago, on his 62nd birthday, he had a second heart attack that left him, at least for a few minutes, clinically dead. "But once again," he says, "I was at the right place at the right time—at a golf tournament, within 100 yards of the emergency squad."

Lucky for him, and lucky for his wife, Betty, four children, fourteen grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. Lucky also for Appalachian Ohio, where MacDonald continues to serve in many different capacities. Following his second heart attack, he summed up his philosophy in a letter to the director of the National Association of Development Organizations, quoting former United Nations secretary general Dag Hammarskjúoúld: "You have not done enough, you have never done enough, so long as it is still possible that you have something to contribute."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.