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Meet Weebo: Newest addition to Northeast Ohio Development and Finance Authority

WARREN –

Don’t be alarmed if you’ve spotted a small, black object buzzing above you downtown near Courthouse Square.

His name is Weebo and he is the newest addition to the Northeast Ohio Development and Finance Authority staff.

Recently, Weebo spent some time hovering in Warren over the parking lot areas between Highland Avenue and East Market Street long enough to capture aerial shots of the new Samuel E. Lanza Veterans Resource Center that will be used to update the city’s comprehensive land use plan.

Nicholas Coggins, communication / program manager for the Western Reserve Port Authority, said the project is among several Weebo, named for the drone featured in the movie “Flubber,” will help complete. NEODFA is the economic arm of the local port authority.

“It’s a great asset to have,” Coggins said. “Having a tool like this will help us do a lot we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do.”

A few years back, the port authority joined Warren, Howland and the Trumbull County Planning Commission to create the Trumbull County Brownfield Coalition. With the port authority taking the lead, the coalition applied for and received grant funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. From that, $2,500 was used to buy Weebo and all the accessories needed to operate him.

Julie Edwards, a planner with the Trumbull County planning commission, said an advantage to having the remote-controlled aerial vehicle is that it can travel over particular properties and above buildings to provide aerial views that can be used to provide updated information, including how a site, property or area has changed, including spots where buildings have been constructed or taken down.

“It helps us get a better understanding of what we’re working with, what’s on a particular property or site, and what we need to add or eliminate from the information we have on that area,” she said.

She said the coalition is looking to use the drone to record information about local brownfield sites – areas that need to be rid of hazardous substances before they can be marketed or used for redevelopment or expansion projects.

Last month, the county commissioners said they planned to apply for up to $200,000 in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency brownfield grant money to help start the revitalization process for vacant land in downtown Warren.

Edwards said the EPA program provides money for communities to create a strategy for assessment, cleanup and reuse within a brownfield area.

She said the planning commission selected downtown Warren as a target community and recently contracted with the city to update its comprehensive land use plan. The plan was last updated in 1960, she said.

“Working together as a coalition has allowed us to purchase the drone and put it to use on these and other projects we have planned for the future,” Edwards said. We wouldn’t have been able to purchase the drone and start some of these projects if we had tried doing it on our own. It’s not something, technology, we would have been able to afford.”

The county brownfield coalition used money from the initial $600,000 EPA grant to create a countywide inventory of more than 70 brownfield sites in the county – a first step in redeveloping the properties.

Anthony Trevena, the port authority’s economic development director, said having the drone saves the coalition from having to send individuals to building rooftops to access the condition of each structure. He said the coalition is open to using the drone to help other communities with various economic development projects.

Across the country, drones have become tools of search and rescue efforts, building inspections, property surveys, crop evaluations and other efforts.

“Different agencies, communities, organizations are using drones now for a variety of things,” he said. “Why not use one for economic development? It can save time, money, manpower. For example, rather than having to fly over ourselves or climb up onto the roof of a building, we can program the drone to take the pictures or shoot the videos we need to get an idea of what’s going on with a property, a structure, a particular area. It’s a practical way of doing something and getting a piece of the puzzle done.”

(Published August 13, 2016 by Virginia Shank, Tibune Chronicle)