Housing, worker retention a challenge in Clark County, leaders say

Springfield has seen new investment and is making strides to improve the local workforce, but continues to face challenges like a lack of available housing and too few opportunities for younger workers, local business and government leaders said at a recent forum.

The Chamber of Greater Springfield hosted a two-hour discussion about the challenges and opportunities facing the city during a meeting with staff from the Greater Ohio Policy Center last week. The policy center is a nonprofit that advocates for urban communities in the state but has increasingly focused attention on smaller cities like Springfield, Lima and Sandusky in recent years.

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Much of the discussion focused on a lack of available new housing inventory local leaders said is needed to stabilize neighborhoods and attract younger workers to live in Clark County.

Springfield has seen investment downtown in recent years, including a new hospital, a brewery, an ice arena and more small businesses, said Mike McDorman, president and CEO of the Chamber of Greater Springfield. But the county’s housing stock is older and it’s been difficult to encourage investment in new developments.

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“There are affordable houses here but they’re not the kind of houses they want,” McDorman said of younger workers. “They’re not looking for a fixer-upper. They’re not looking for a big yard.”

Staff at Greater Ohio began looking more closely at smaller and mid-sized cities like Springfield after noticing the number of people participating in the workforce was growing in places like Cincinnati and Cleveland, even during the recent recession, said Torey Hollingsworth, manager of research and policy for Greater Ohio. But that wasn’t the case in mid-sized and smaller cities.

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“That really opened this question of why was that happening,” she said. “What was it that Cleveland and Cincinnati were able to do that wasn’t happening in the other cities?”

Hollingsworth also noted their research showed small and mid-sized cities in Ohio seemed to to fare worse economically than similar cities in other states.

Springfield has had some success attracting younger workers in industries like education and health care, said David Estrop, a retired Springfield City Schools superintendent who’s now running for Springfield City Commission. The challenge, he said at the forum, is keeping them here.

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“Unfortunately we’ve become a training ground for people in education and our safety forces,” Estrop said. “A lot of them go to other places that pay more or have more amenities.”

Several business leaders said at the forum that cities like Springfield are often at a disadvantage when competing with larger cities for everything from attracting new investment to seeking tax credits or funding to rehabilitate infrastructure.

“We always seem to be right on the cusp and then something happens to keep pulling us back,” said Jim Lagos, a local attorney and chairman of the chamber board.

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