Springfield among the small cities economic recovery is bypassing, report says

The Ohio Valley Surgical Hospital. Bill Lackey/Staff
The Ohio Valley Surgical Hospital. Bill Lackey/Staff

Some of Ohio’s small and midsize cities have faced a tough road to recovery since the past recession and need more tools to revive their economies, according to a recent report by an Ohio nonprofit.

Smaller cities like Springfield, Lima and Mansfield and their surrounding communties are home to about a third of Ohio’s residents, according to a report released last month by the Greater Ohio Policy Center. The organization is a nonprofit that pushes for policies that benefit the state’s urban areas. Often, those cities were hit hard during the recession and haven’t fared as well as larger communities that were home to more large companies and had more financial resources, according to the report’s authors.

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Now, smaller cities across the state are increasingly planning to push state lawmakers for new policies and tools to revive downtown blocks, create more housing options and redevelop abandoned manufacturing sites, said Michael McDorman, president and CEO of the Chamber of Greater Springfield.

Springfield has long advocated for more resources from the state, McDorman said. But smaller cities are increasingly working together to push lawmakers for changes, he said.

“This simply has not been at the top of the list so we’re trying to raise it as a top priority,” McDorman said.

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About two decades ago, Ohio’s small and midsize cities were often in better financial shape than much larger communities, the report argues. But that changed when the recession hit, and while larger cities have since been able to lure younger, skilled workers it’s been a bigger challenge for smaller communities.

The report came about after interviews with local leaders in several cities, including Lima, Lorain, Mansfield and Springfield.

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“Small legacy cities saw the size of their workforces drop dramatically, even as they grew in Cleveland and Cincinnati. Today, the share of adults in small legacy cities who are working or actively looking for a job is 6 percentage points behind the state average and nearly 13 percentage points behind Columbus. Poverty growth in small cities has also outstripped that of their larger counterparts,” the report says.

Some successes

Springfield and the surrounding region has had some success attracting jobs and improving downtown, McDorman said. Several entities worked together to develop the Springfield Regional Medical Center downtown, drawing more workers to the city’s center.

More than $400 million has been invested in downtown Springfield over the past decade, including projects to improve Fountain Avenue, a new downtown park, ice rink and whitewater enhancements to Buck Creek. There have also been private investments like the Springfield Regional Medical Center and Ohio Valley Medical Center.

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But McDorman, a board member for the Greater Ohio Policy Center, said over the past decade it’s been harder to track down grants and other public funding to jump start local investment. And it’s challenging finding capital to demolish or renovate long-abandoned manufacturing sites throughout the city.

Cities like Cincinnati and Columbus are home to a few large corporations and private citizens who can help kickstart further investment, said Alison Goebel, executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center. But that’s not often the case for smaller manufacturing cities with populations between 15,000 to 55,000, she said

“The recession knocked everyone on their back a little bit,” Goebel said. “It’s been harder for these cities to recover for a lot of reasons.”

In 2016, a report from the Pew Research Center argued Springfield tied Goldsboro, N.C. for the biggest decline in economic status since 2000.

The Pew study showed in Springfield, median household income plunged 27 percent from 2000 to 2014, the greatest loss cited in the Pew report. It dropped from $73,895 in 1999 to $53,957 in 2014. About 61 percent of Springfield’s population was considered middle-class in 2000, according to the Pew study. By 2014, that percentage fell to 55 percent.

Despite Springfield’s successes, the region still has a long way to go if it wants to keep younger, skilled workers and continue to attract new businesses, McDorman said.

“It’s a lot harder for the communities that are the size of Springfield with limited resources,” he said.

Policy suggestions

The GOPC report includes several recommendations to give cities like Springfield more tools to boost redevelopment and attract new residents.

For example, the report suggests additional funding for cleaning up and demolishing vacant brownfield sites. It also suggests state lawmakers develop subsidies or other incentices to encourage market-rater housing in key neighborhhods.

The report also suggests funding for approcriate public transportation projects to allow residents better access to jobs and other services.

In part, Goebel said the report is aimed at providing suggestions that cities can push for with state lawmakers.

“Small legacy cities must reinvent themselves – by building on their past, these communities can find new opportunities to thrive in the future,” the report says. “Local leaders have the will to succeed and remain committed to their cities’ revitalization and stabilization, but supportive state policy will be necessary to realize these communities’ full potential.”

Both the Republican and Democratic candidates for Ohio Governor this fall said the issue will be important over the next several years.

“I grew up in a small town and understand the challenges that many of Ohio’s small and mid-sized cities face, said Rich Cordray, the Democratic candidate for Ohio Governor in November. “As Governor, I’ll work closely with local leaders to spread out economic opportunity to our smaller communities by supporting our homegrown small businesses, and by investing in our public schools and community colleges so that Ohioans and their children can find good-paying jobs without having to move away to look for work.” I’ll also stand strong against attempts to roll back Governor Kasich’s Medicaid expansion, which is critical in providing affordable healthcare to Ohioans, keeping costs down, combatting the opioid epidemic, and making sure our local and rural hospitals around the state can stay open and serve their communities.”

A spiokesman for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said if elected, DeWine would focus on workforce development to benefit Ohio’s smaller cities.

“One of the keys to growing prosperity in Ohio’s small towns is to focus heavily on workforce development so that we can ensure people have the skills they need to compete and attract great businesses and jobs to rural communities and big cities alike, said Josh Eck, a spokesman for the DeWine-Husted campaign. “Mike DeWine believes strongly that one of our top priorities should be making sure that every high school graduate is either college or career ready, or on a pathway to being career ready with an industry credential. It is imperative that young people in our state know, regardless their zip code, that there are rewarding and well-paying career opportunities available to them here in Ohio.”

Similar challenges

One issue Goebel said she noticed while visiting many of the cities who participated in the report was that many of the challenges facing the cities are the same. Many of the report’s recommendations apply to larger cities like Dayton, Toledo and Cleveland, but they’re particularly important to smaller communities, she said.

In Lima, local officials have been able to attract restaurants and retain in downtown in several cases, said Jeff Sprague, president and CEO of the Allen Economic Development Group. The bigger challenge has been finding opportunities for investment to redevelop the second and third stories of older buildings and create more apartments and other housing to encourage residents to move back downtown.

It’s hard to attract investors unless the city can show they’ll get a return on their investment. He said cities like Dayton and Toledo have seen investment sprout up around sports venues like the Dayton Dragons, but that isn’t necessarily an option in Lima or Springfield.

“We’ve got a lot of older buildings that are great for redevelopment, but the cost of redevelopment exceeds rent structures,” Sprague said.

Smaller cities like Lima also have to work harder to attract new business than in the past, he said. Several years ago, companies were mostly concerned about available facilities and whether a communty had the right workforce. Now, business owners also want to know what kind of lifestyle a city can offer its employees.

“Now the whole quality of life component has started to factor in,” Sprague said.

In Xenia, city spokesman Lee Warren pointed to several signs of progress despite what he described as a “steep climb to recover since the recession days.”

He pointed to the Devil Wind Brewery, a new business that took over a vacant former Fastenol Building on South Detroit Street. There are also plans for a redevelopment project in the Old Litt Brothers Building above Xenia Shoe and Leather into affordable apartments, which he said will add to downtown Xenia’s revitalization efforts.

He also said the city has seen about 3.5 percent growth in its population since the 2010 census and said Ryan Homes is adding a second, market-rate new home development in Xenia.

“We have been underserved in downtown, but in recent years entrepreneurs are seeing that as opportunity, not limitation,” Warren said of downtown Xenia. “As we begin to build-out many areas of the city, we want our downtown core to enjoy the same phenomenon.”

McDorman said he’s hoping the report will make state lawmakers more aware of the challenges cities like Springfield are facing.

“This document encapsulates for state legislators what communities the size of Springfield are dealign with,” McDorman said.

The Springfield News-Sun will continue to provide unmatched coverage of economic development in Clark and Champaign Counties. For this story, the paper spoke to a state non-profit and economic development officials from Ohio cities to discuss the challenges facing small and mid-size cities across the state.

By the numbers:

3.7 million — Ohio residents who live in or near small and mid-size cities

$400M — Estimated investment in downtown Springfield in the past decade

59,000 — Estimated Springfield population