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Not all of Ohio’s economies considered ‘prosperous’

Special to the Tribune Chronicle / Adam Cairns, Columbus Dispatch Wesley Stillions, 19, operates a Fanuc robot that picks up and arranges wooden blocks as part of vocational-training studies at the Ramtec training facility in Marion County. High school juniors and seniors in the Ramtec program learn high-tech manufacturing skills that could position them for well-paying jobs in the county.

By most accounts, the state and U.S. economies have fully recovered from the recession that ended in June 2009.

The U.S. unemployment rate was 3.7 percent in November, the lowest since 1969. About 20 million jobs have been created since 2010.

Ohio has a similar story. The state has added about 650,000 jobs over the past eight years and broke an 18-year-old record for total employment in September. The state now has 5.65 million jobs.

The labor market is so tight that there are more job openings than applicants to fill them. Employers routinely complain that they can’t find workers.

But of Ohio’s metro areas, only Columbus, Cincinnati and Akron have more jobs than in 2000, according to a recent U.S. Conference of Mayors report.

At 65.3 percent, Columbus has the highest percentage of working-age people employed among the state’s metros. Only about half of the metro areas in Ohio are above 60 percent. The national average is 61.5 percent.

Nationwide, communities were similarly whacked by the recession, but prosperous areas dominated the recovery, generating more new jobs and businesses than the rest of the nation combined, according to the Economic Innovation Group.

Franklin and most of the counties surrounding Columbus get a ranking of “prosperous,” the best score in the Distressed Communities Index. Break it down further by ZIP code, though, and cracks begin to appear.

Take Licking County, for example. Communities such as Granville, Johnstown and Pataskala get a “prosperous” ranking, but move east and scores tend to go down. Newark, for example, gets an “at-risk” score, the second from the bottom on the index.

The ZIP code for Marion, by comparison, gets the lowest score classification for the index — “distressed.”

Gregory Phillips, 29, moved to Marion from Massachusetts four years ago because his wife, Carmen, is from Marion.

Carmen Phillips, 40, recently got a job assembling dashboard panels on the assembly line at Honda in Marysville.

“It doesn’t look bright,” he said of Marion’s future. “We’re looking to move somewhere else as soon as we can. There’s a lot of concern about the heroin epidemic.”

Jonathan Wright, 58, is a Marion native who grew up in a home with 11 children. While bicycling through downtown Marion, he talked about how it was a good place to raise a family when he was younger.

But Wright mentioned his own stint in prison for drug trafficking. The opioid problem? “I know it’s here,” he said.

He said there is work in Marion. “You just have to get up and go get it,” he said. “That’s exactly what it is.”

Now, city leaders are trying to move the county in a new direction and they’re having some success. Haviland has launched a branding campaign that promotes the city’s vision and story while being true to its past.

At a vocational-training program called Ramtec, 44 high school juniors and seniors are learning high-tech manufacturing skills such as operating and programming robotic arms. The goal is not just to train them, but to keep them in Marion County.

“We want Ohio to be the Silicon Valley of robotics,” said Ritch Ramey, Ramtec’s engineering coordinator. Ramey said average manufacturing jobs pay $56,000 a year.

Other operations in the county are blossoming after years of work.

Just outside the city of Marion is Marion Intermodal, a privately owned terminal on the site of a former Army depot where trains and trucks come together to ship goods. At 2 1/2 miles long and 510 acres, it’s the largest privately owned and operated intermodal terminal in the country not owned by a railroad.

“One hundred containers in, 100 containers out, every day,” said Ted Graham, a co-owner and the terminal’s president. It’s also where all of the Corona beer in Ohio is unloaded for distribution.

“My niche is to and from Mexico,” he said.

Graham, who has been managing the site for 44 years, said the terminal also handles fiberglass shipments and products from Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble. He built the terminal without any financial incentives.

Comstock said there has been $300 million in investment in Marion in the past year. “We had a really good year,” he said.

That includes a $10 million expansion by Central Machinery Tools, and 40 new, good-paying machining jobs.

While acknowledging the problems the county faces, Dean Jacob, president and CEO of the Marion Community Foundation, said the region is not as bad as people think.

“What happens to a community? It gets down on itself,” Jacob said.

“It took a long time to rebound,” he said. “In the last five years, people began to get tired of that attitude.”

Mark Williams and Mark Ferenchik are writers for The Columbus Dispatch. This story was generated as part of Your Voice Ohio, a collaboration of Ohio media outlets exploring the state’s economy.

mawilliams@dispatch.com

mferenchik@dispatch.com

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