A Case for Economic Development in Rural Ohio

by Mike Jacoby, CEcD: APEG President and CEO

For decades now, economic development victories have been too few and far between in much of rural southern and eastern Ohio.  This incredible article from Bloomberg, “Why Do Americans Stay When Their Town Has No Future,”  provides a harsh reminder and excellent insight into the economic struggles faced by many in Appalachian Ohio. In particular, it tells the story of strong, hard-working families in Adams County currently facing gut-wrenching economic and family decisions.

This article brought up a lot of emotion for me because it mirrors countless other stories I’ve seen and heard in my 20-plus years working in economic development in rural Ohio.  I think it is important to challenge a few presumptions and to challenge all of us to do better.

It can be easy for policy makers to say public funds should not be used to prop up locations that lose their economic base, but what are the public costs of doing nothing?

The Urban Land Institute chapter in Columbus issued a report several months ago that predicted the Columbus region will add 600,000 people by 2050; Ohio as a whole is only predicted to grow by 110,000. That means almost a half a million Ohioans are predicted to relocate to central Ohio, and I bet rural Ohio counties will be the biggest donor communities. Transportation officials should start planning additional highway lanes and a second outerbelt around Columbus now. What will be the public expenditure on roads compared to efforts to diversify the economies of rural Ohio?  A related thought: I recommend politicians let central Ohio drivers vote on whose roads they would like to see those additional 500,000 people drive on by 2050.  Central Ohio drivers may want to keep them where they came from.

I poke at congestion partly in jest. Columbus is a fabulous city and only getting better. All of Ohio should be proud of the nationally recognized economic powerhouse being built before our eyes in Central Ohio. But consider this: Appalachian Ohio’s economic future can have a positive and direct correlation to the success of nearby metros like Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. We should all be cheerleaders for the success of these great cities, but we should also be actively planning for win-win growth scenarios where a metro area’s growth does not amount to a zero-sum gain for rural Ohio. Without a strategy, the exodus to the cities will continue.

Did you know that 1 in 8 workers in our 25-county region commutes to a metro area outside of the region to go to work? The biggest beneficiary of our labor is central Ohio where we send 35,000 workers with some spending 2-4 commuting hours each day. The success of these metros has been built and continues to thrive with the support of our region’s labor. If metro area companies are growing and interested in expanding operations, many of our Appalachian counties already have a strong, skilled workforce in place and ready. Satellite locations offer a win for both regions; companies and workers win. In this period of sustained economic growth, now is the time to level the playing field for rural Ohio. A rising tide should lift all boats.

A first important step is currently underway in the General Assembly. I’d like to personally thank several of our regional state legislators: Rep. Andy Thompson, Rep. Jay Edwards, Rep. Brian Hill, Rep. Ryan Smith, Rep. Jack Cera and NW Ohio’s Rep. Craig Reidel for introducing a bill to reactivate and refund Ohio’s Rural Industrial Park Loan Program (RIPL), which is an important tool that can subsidize and mitigate the risk of developing industrial parks and spec buildings in rural areas. This program has worked before. It can work again. RIPL is critical in our efforts to diversify our economy and provide competitive locations for job-creating projects.

The people and communities of southern and eastern Ohio have endured a lot. The decline of coal, steel, aluminum, and uranium enrichment jobs are just the latest chapters in what could be a modern-day sequel to John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.

Our region is not a hopeless charity case. Our workers are some of the most productive and dedicated workers found anywhere — ask the owners of many manufacturing plants that thrive here. 

Our roots are firmly planted. We know remaining home can be harder and involve more risks and sacrifices than picking up and moving, but we will make it work if given the opportunity.