Republican candidates Seth Ellington and Duane Hayes Flowers traded jabs with incumbent Licking County commissioner Brad Feightner during a primary debate in Newark on Feb. 23.

Republican candidates Seth Ellington and Duane Hayes Flowers traded jabs with incumbent Licking County commissioner Brad Feightner during a primary debate in Newark on Feb. 23.

The three will be on the ballot for the March 6 primary. The winner will advance to the November general election. No candidate in an opposing party filed for the primary, and independent candidates must file by March 5, according to state law.

Incumbent Republican commissioner Tim Bubb also is up for re-election. He was not challenged in the primary and will advance to the November election against Democrat Daniel Boone Coffman and Libertarian James Snedden Jr., who also are unopposed in the primary.

Much of the Feb. 23 debate centered on attracting new businesses to Licking County and how the county should approach oil and gas drilling in the Utica shale.

Feightner's position was that Licking County is ready and able to attract new business and industry, while Ellington said the commissioners need to take a more active role in getting industries' attention. Flowers questioned if the county is ready to accommodate those businesses.

Feightner cited $1.5 million in infrastructure investment near Beech Road in western Licking County, as well as thousands of jobs created at the New Albany business park's personal-care and beauty campus, which is Licking County. He said infrastructure investments have been made in the area, and it's important to be sure big-box retail is not at every intersection.

"We have to be mindful of what the trustees in that area would like," said Feightner, who believes that most trustees want to retain their township's rural nature.

Ellington said the county "is at a turning point."

He said the oil- and-gas-rich Utica shale reserves will bring many people to the county and the commissioners need to be proactive and show leadership.

"Somebody needs to be at the forefront," he said.

Ellington said Licking County recently missed an opportunity when the Halliburton Oil Co. decided to bring 300 jobs to neighboring Muskingum County.

"I have a problem with that," he said.

Ellington said he'd develop a long-term plan to proactively seek industries and help existing businesses.

Flowers, who is mayor of Hanover, questioned whether Feightner has attended many village and township meetings.

He also said the job-ready site near Pataskala would be a tough sell to industries because it has associated outstanding bills that the county has yet to collect.

Feightner responded that he has attended village and township meetings and the outstanding bill at the job-ready site is a legal issue that he, as a commissioner, is not at liberty to discuss.

He said the new Grow Licking County Community Investment Corp., or CIC, is a positive step for the county and will help attract and retain businesses.

"We were faced in the county with a fork in the road," he said.

Feightner said similar public-private partnerships have worked in other parts of the state and people in the county believed it needed a "one-stop shop" for potential developers to learn about Licking County's assets.

"It should be a win-win for Licking County," he said. "It's in the beginning process. Hopefully, it'll work out the best for Licking County."

Ellington said the CIC "makes sense on paper" and he would support it, if elected. However, he questioned why townships, such as Etna, which has the job-ready site, were not consulted as the CIC was created.

"For that matter, no township has a voice on the board," Ellington said.

He reiterated that a commissioner must proactively seek community investors.

Flowers said he believes the county already had the necessary agencies in place to attract industry and questioned why $750,000 is needed for the CIC's cause. He said he knows of several businesses that wanted to invest in Licking County but couldn't arrange an appointment with the commissioners.

He agreed that the Utica-shale oil and gas would impact the county and suggested an impact fee for prospective oil companies to cover damages to roads and other infrastructure that drilling would cause.

The candidates also were asked how they would restore the sheriff's department's budget so the department could operate fully.

Ellington said the solution still comes back to attracting industry. If more jobs are available in Licking County, he said, the county will have less crime and put fewer demands on the sheriff's department. He said as a Licking Township resident, he depends on the sheriff's office for police protection.

Flowers said it will be tough at a local level to attract jobs.

"I would fully fund the sheriff's department," he said. "It's needed."

Feightner said the sheriff's budget is the largest in the county and it was tough for Sheriff Randy Thorp to make necessary cuts.

Feightner said the county is committed to replacing aging cruisers, and Thorp made many changes to the department to function with less money.

"He's done everything within his power to work within his budget," said Feightner.

Ellington also said Thorp has done a fine job.

The discussion then turned back to the job-ready site and the Utica shale. Ellington repeated his discontent with Halliburton locating in Muskingum County.

"Licking County should be a premier place to do business," he said.

Added Flowers: "We knew the shale gas thing was coming three years ago."

Flowers also said that the job-ready site isn't ready to welcome new industries.

Feightner disagreed, saying that the site is ready for business and many agencies worked hard to make it that way. He said he heard the Muskingum site was more practical for Halliburton and its transportation needs.

Ellington said that wasn't a good enough answer and that the commissioners must take the initiative and not wait for people to come to them.

"I do think there's a communication problem," Ellington said.

He said the county needs to take the lead in Utica-shale drilling and not allow incoming gas and oil companies to take advantage of the residents.

Flowers said the county has a potential for 4,000 drillings, although, he said, 1,000 is more realistic.

"This is going to happen for a long time," he said.

He said he doubted the county would be prepared for a disaster if something goes wrong during drilling or speculating.

Feightner said the commissioners have met with Knox County commissioners to make sure local infrastructure can handle all the activity. He said the state's permit process isn't heavily regulated and it is possible for oil companies to work without impact fees.

In closing comments, Flowers said he believes government regulation has squelched the spirit of free enterprise and "government needs to get out of the way."

Feightner said he believes in public service, and, emphasizing his experience and knowledge, said he "will continue to promote Licking County" and its citizens.

Ellington said he would take a more proactive approach to the commissioner's role, if elected.

"I'm going to set a vision, set a plan," he said. "If Licking County doesn't work as one, it can't move forward."