As a lifelong resident of Northeast Ohio now working with news media all over the state, the frequent trips through and around Columbus are both maddening and frightening. Lane shifts, orange barrels and concrete barriers coupled with overturned tankers can make a 20-mile cross-town trip a 90-minute nightmare.
The drive is a reminder that Columbus is unlike the rest of Ohio. Home of state government employees and a giant university, Columbus and the surrounding counties enjoy population, job and income growth while much of the rest of the state has not recovered from peaks 20 and 30 years ago.
Ohio news organizations are conducting meetings with citizens around the state to get a better understanding of the economic struggles, and there has been this whisper: “What will we hear from the people in Columbus?”
So, as we convened the third meeting of nine, and Columbus area residents were asked to report on their table conversations, I took pause as one person said an asset of the area is “transportation.” Not from my perspective, I thought. But then, I come from one of those struggling areas where roadwork usually means repairs rather than expansion to accommodate more traffic.
But another Columbus resident complained that transportation in central Ohio is a massive failure. Opportunities to build mass transit to speed travel around a growing city have been squandered, he said.
Some other things we heard: Happy family, happy life, parks, markets, shopping, car, house; Well educated workforce compared with other cities; Young, growing population.
The Columbus conversation was indeed very different. It didn’t have the same sense of economic stress that was heard in Dayton and Springfield. Will there be different perceptions as we continue in Warren, Akron and Cleveland?
The news outlets involved in this project have published or broadcast a number of stories in the past several weeks asking for input on what will create more vibrant communities, and there has been an outpouring of ideas.
One critic in an upscale Akron suburb viewed the news project as a veiled threat to raise taxes. “Please keep your hands away from my wallet while you fail to address personal responsibility issues impacting our communities,” he said.
A person in Springfield, near Dayton, offered a little levity with a question he wanted answered: "Why do we have a bus service named for animal droppings? Something is wrong there!" (The city’s bus system is called Springfield City Area Transit, or SCAT).
One woman made this brutal assessment: “NE Ohio is seriously lacking people who think big and dream for a great Cleveland. They look at the area as something that was once great but has deteriorated; many stay here only because of family. I sense a defeatist attitude, an attitude that Ohio is a “****hole” and it won’t get any better.”
So, what should we make then of the people in Dayton and Springfield who view their communities as great places to raise a family, yet their economic numbers show major distress and their public services are unable to abate job losses and appalling overdose death rates. Is the Cleveland transplant correct, that we have become complacent in a not-so-pleasant place?
These conversations are designed to recognize different opinions but arrive at shared solutions. Some ideas are emerging, but what speed bumps must we navigate?
Taxes and economic development are part of the tension. In meetings and emails there were complaints about tax abatement to help create jobs. Often those jobs bring low wages. If incentives work, why have Ohio jobs and income not recovered since the peak in 2000? In the Columbus meeting, the concern about low wages was called a “race to the bottom,” and the group that discussed economic opportunities could agree on little.
Taxes are “the biggest obstacle to living here. Prior to moving here I never paid a local income tax. My state income tax was a flat 5%,” said Jennifer DeMuth. “I do not have children so I feel I am paying a high cost for services that I will never use.”
Luke Leffler said he grew up in a poorly funded school district south of Youngstown, graduating from a high school in 1999 where textbooks referenced countries that hadn’t existed for years. He went to college with hopes of moving to a more promising part of the country but student debt prevented him from the move.
Yet, maybe there is some clarity as well. On the YourVoiceOhio.org web site, Columbus area resident Yaromir Steiner left this thought: “I submit that a vibrant community is one where the well-being of the maximum number of its citizens is maximized.” Well-being is measurable, he said, and is done so by the Gallup poll.
He is not alone. This theme emerged as a definition of a vibrant community: Ohioans want respect in their work and no matter their life experiences. That respect includes access to help and a quality, meaningful education.
There is another area of agreement, and that’s assets: We have water and people craving for meaningful work.
Is there a way to merge our ideals and assets to create new, thriving communities? Do you agree with any of these ideas? Disagree? Have more to offer? Join the conversations as they occur across the state and email your local news organization.
Doug Oplinger is retired managing editor of the Akron Beacon Journal and now leads the Your Voice Ohio news collaborative of about 50 print, broadcast and web news organizations. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Join reporters and editors as we attempt to gain a better understanding of how Ohioans define a vibrant Ohio and identify possible solutions. And tell us how we can do our job better so that you can be involved.
To register, go to the Your Voice Ohio web site.
Warren: Sunday Sept. 30, 1-3 p.m., Warren G. Harding High School, 860 Elm Road NE, Warren, 44483. Register at: bit.ly/Vibrant_Warren
Akron: Monday Oct. 1, 6-8 p.m., Guy’s Party Center, Central Ballroom, 500 E. Waterloo Road, Akron, 44319. Register at: bit.ly/Vibrant_Akron
Stow: Tuesday, Oct. 2., 6-8 p.m., Heritage Barn, 5238 Young Road, Stow, 44224. Register at: bit.ly/Vibrant_Stow
Cleveland: Wednesday, Oct. 3, 6-8 p.m., Lab Studios by GLO, 2460 Lakeside Ave., Cleveland, 44114. Register at: bit.ly/Vibrant_Cleveland
Euclid: Thursday, Oct. 4., 6-8 p.m., Recher Hall, Slovenian Society Home, 20713 Recher Ave, Euclid, 44119. Register at: bit.ly/Vibrant_Euclid