Ohio media ask: How can we make Ohio’s communities more vibrant?

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By Doug Oplinger

Special to The Vindicator

As the rest of the nation celebrated in recent days that middle-class income finally had recovered from the Great Recession, there was no cause to cheer in Ohio.

Recession after recession for generations, Ohio rebounded from hard times, but not anymore. Not only has the state failed to rebound from the Great Recession, it has yet to recover from the 2001 recession.

Consider: Nearly two decades ago, Ohio median household income hit its peak and since then plunged as much as $10,000 during the Great Recession and remains $6,000 below the 2000 Census. That’s money out of household pockets for car repairs, health care emergencies, food and education.

The state is still short 152,000 jobs from its peak in 2000. That’s more jobs than there are people living in Dayton, Ohio’s sixth-largest city. The jobs decline occurred at the same time the nation’s largest generation, the millennials, came of age.

And, while the nation’s population grew 16 percent since the 2000 Census, Ohio edged up only 3 percent.

Old methods of revitalization haven’t reversed the decline. In the most recent year for which data is available, 2015, Ohio communities allowed businesses to forgo nearly a billion dollars in property taxes to stimulate growth, but at what cost? Those are taxes that businesses would otherwise have paid for fire and police protection, schools and drug addiction services.

More than 40 TV and radio stations, daily and weekly newspapers and online news organizations have joined in the Your Voice Ohio project to launch conversations about economic issues in the state.

Tiajuan Lewis, 68 and recently retired from the Area Agency on Aging in the Canton area, said young people with options are leaving.

“It seems to me that the [communities] that are shrinking, it’s because the parents get their kids a really good education and then when they get educated, they just leave,” Lewis told the Canton Repository. “They give up on Ohio and just go somewhere else.”

We could change that, she said, offering a solution also heard in 14 previous Your Voice Ohio sessions on the addiction crisis. “I would say in anybody’s community the one thing that needs to be done is that people need to accept each other for who they are…,” Lewis said. “And love each other. We breathe the same air.“

In Warren, a young businessman has another prescription.

Logan Reinard, 29, started a coffee shop in 2017 on Warren’s courthouse square. His county lost 1 of 3 jobs since 1997 peak employment.

“There are a lot of reasons why some areas succeed and others don’t,” Reinard told The Tribune Chronicle. “It depends what you’re surrounded by.”

Reinard said people, especially younger people, don’t want to move into areas that aren’t surrounded by amenities they want. Areas that have a “mindset of excellence” tend to succeed, he said.

Former Akron Beacon Journal investigative journalist and data specialist David Knox, now working independently, compared historic household income data with new 2017 numbers released Thursday.

He found that one more year offered little relief. Of the 39 counties for which data is available, 41 percent, or 16 of them, declined last year. Among those were many of Ohio’s major urban counties: Cuyahoga (Cleveland), Stark (Canton), Montgomery, Butler and Clark counties (Dayton area), and Trumbull and Mahoning.

The measure to which Ohio has fallen is immense. Ohioans lived well at one time, with median household income 9 percent above the national rate in 1970.

After the 2001 recession, household income imploded, so that by 2017, Ohio is now 10.5 percent below the national rate. Moreover, the U.S.-Ohio gap widened from 2016 to 10.5 percent and may be the widest in a half century.

More than $6,000 out of pockets year after year has taken a toll.

Household income numbers are available only for counties with population of more than 65,000. Of those, only four have household income higher than 2000 Census numbers.

They are Delaware, north of Columbus, where median household income is up 8 percent from 1999; Athens, in rural Appalachia, where it’s up about 10 percent; Scioto up 5 percent; and Belmont in the heart of southeastern Ohio Appalachian country that has risen because of new wealth from natural-gas exploration.

The Your Voice Ohio project will explore jobs, population, home values, quality-of-life, tax abatement and issues that Ohioans suggest we pursue.

There will be community meetings in which journalists will sit with area residents to gain a better understanding of how lives have changed and the solutions needed.

Doug Oplinger is the retired managing editor of the Akron Beacon Journal and now leads the Your Voice Ohio media participants. He can be emailed at doplinger@yourvoiceohio.org. Contributing to today’s story were David Knox; the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which paid for Knox’s data work; The Repository in Canton; and The Tribune Chronicle of Warren.