Monday, February 04, 2002

Two Ohios: Geography guides destiny

Taft to examine economic issues in annual address

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        About the only things Rita Brumley and Rocky McNickle have in common are the Ohio license plates on their cars.

        Ms. Brumley is a suburban mother living just north of Columbus in Delaware County, the fastest-growing county in the state, a place where the recession has produced no more ripples than a pebble would in the ocean.

        Mr. McNickle lives in Vinton County, tucked in the Appalachian foothills of southeast Ohio, where an unwanted legacy of poverty is about all many people have to pass from one generation to the next. Here, the 12 percent unemployment rate is more than twice the state average.

        Finding ways to bridge the wide gap between rich and poor during a time when Ohio is struggling to lift itself out of recession is one of the challenges facing Gov. Bob Taft, who will stand before the Ohio General Assembly Tuesday to deliver his annual “State of the State” address.

        Economic development issues, including a 10-year plan to bring high-tech, high-paying jobs to Ohio, are expected to be a central theme, along with education and security issues in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

        In Delaware County, Ms. Brumley shuttles kids from soccer practice and school plays and works on the one community project she sees as a threat to the quality of life in her picturesque suburban township — the possibility that a four-lane highway bridge will be built across the scenic Olentangy River near her home.

        “I'm all for progress and growth,” Ms. Brumley said, “but I want to keep the way of life we have.”

        For Mr. McNickle, any change would be good because things can't get much worse.

        Mr. McNickle, a father and husband, hasn't worked a steady job in two years. Living in a county where the unemployment rate is 12 percent — more than twice the statewide average of 4.8 percent — jobs are hard to come by.

        “Why would I want to drive two hours up to Columbus every day for an $8-an-hour job when I could live on $6-an-hour here?,” Mr. McNickle said. “All I want is a chance.”

        They are two people in two very different places in very different circumstances.

        And theirs are by no means the only stories among the 11.3 million people in Ohio's 88 counties — in poverty-stricken inner cities, on rich farmland, in the hills of southeast Ohio and the flatlands of the west.

        They are all Ohioans. Tuesday, Mr. Taft will have to speak to them all.

        Scarcely a week goes by without announcements in some part of the state of major layoffs. And there are few indications that things are getting better.

        The state's unemployment claims in the first three weeks of January show an increase of 22 percent over the same period last year. The figures are even worse in the state's largest urban areas — up 56 percent in Hamilton County, 55 percent in Cuyahoga and Franklin counties.

        “If the country is coming out of the recession, it is definitely not true in Ohio,” said George Zeller, senior researcher who monitors Ohio economic conditions at the Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland.

        Nowhere in Ohio is the gap between rich and poor wider than in Delaware and Vinton counties.

        Delaware County, just north of the I-270 loop that encircles Columbus, has come so far, so fast, that even local officials blink. The county's population grew by an astounding 64 percent between 1990 and 2000.

        “It's amazing,” County Commissioner Deborah Martin said. “And it shows no sign of slowing up.”

        At a time when most counties and the state are seeing declining tax revenues, Delaware County's income continues to grow. This year, the new Polaris shopping mall in the southeast corner of the county has generated so much revenue that homeowners will see a cut in their property taxes for the second year in a row.

        Delaware County has benefited from the enormous growth of Columbus to the south. Franklin County has basically run out of room, so the boom of the 1990s turned northward into Delaware County.

        Some Delaware Countians wish they could go back to the days before traffic jams and omnipresent development.

        Shirley Robinson runs a family florist business out of an 115-year-old former railroad depot on the city of Delaware's east side. “Things moved a lot slower when I was a girl,” Mrs. Robinson said. “People didn't have to lock their doors at night. It's not the same place it was.”

        But it is a place where people are earning paychecks, even in a recession.

        It has an unemployment rate of 2.8 percent, its highest rate in several years. But local officials expect the number to shrink, with several new businesses slated to relocate there soon. Last week, Kroger Inc. announced it would build a $69 million warehouse on U.S. 36 on the far east side of the city of Delaware. Most of the 600 jobs will be taken by employees transferred from warehouses in Columbus, but Kroger expects about 230 new hires.

        The population growth — from about 67,000 in 1990 to 110,000 in 2000 — has made transportation the county's biggest worry. Local officials have devised a thoroughfare plan that would build a four-lane connector between the major routes through town — U.S. 42, U.S. 23 and U.S. 36 — to alleviate the traffic pressure.

        It is that connector that has Ms. Brumley and many of her neighbors fearful that Delaware County's incredible growth will end up disturbing the quiet of their Liberty Township homes with a four-lane highway.

        A transportation problem, though, is one of the things that Delaware and Vinton counties have in common.

        In Vinton County, there is only one four-lane highway — State Route 32, the Appalachian Highway — and it only cuts across a remote corner of the county.

        All the others are two-lane roads that wind through the Vinton County hills, including U.S. 50, which runs from Chillicothe to the county seat of McArthur. The nearest interstate highway is at least a two-hour drive away.

        The lack of transportation has held development back, Vinton County officials say.

        “If Route 50 were a four-lane road, we wouldn't be begging businesses to come here,” said Vinton County Commissioner Mike Bledsoe.

        Land is still relatively cheap in Vinton County and the rolling hills and pine forests make it an inviting place. But the natural beauty barely masks the deep poverty there. Its 12-percent unemployment rate is the second-highest in Ohio and an estimated 60 percent of the county's children live in poverty.

        Local officials are trying to turn it around. The county has cleared about 200 acres for an industrial park they hope will attract small manufacturing firms.

        “We're not expecting General Motors to move here,” Mr. Bledsoe said.

        With such a small base of workers — only 3,900 people in the workforce, 500 people unemployed — local officials believe it would not take much to make a difference.

        “Give me 10 companies with 40 workers each and that would just about do the trick,” said Dave Boothe, the county's economic development director.

        The news for Vinton County, though, is not all bad.

        A massive construction project is under way near Wilkesville in the southeastern corner of the county, where Dynegy, a Houston-based firm, is building the Rolling Hills electric power plant. It has greatly expanded the county's tax base, local officials say, generating $600,000 for the county school district alone.

        In Wilkesville, the nearly 300 construction workers on the site are a boon for the few local businesses, including Mullins Restaurant.

        Every noon hour, dozens of workers scrape the thick mud off their boots on a post outside and fill the booths.

        “It's the best thing that ever happened to us,” said restaurant co-owner Cathy Shaulis, as she braced for another busy lunch hour.

        But most of the construction workers have been brought in from out-of-state.

        Mr. McNickle is among the unemployed men in Wilkesville who applied for construction jobs last August. He checks back periodically, with no success.

        “A couple of weeks ago, I was driving up by the construction site and I picked up a hitchhiker,” Mr. McNickle said as he pumped gas into his pick-up truck at a station across the road from the power plant.

        “The guy was from Texas and his van broke down, so I had to take him to work at a job I can't get,” Mr. McNickle said. “That's the way it goes in Vinton County.”


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