LIMA — Lyle Endsley left Allen County when he was a young man. But he came back.
In 2009, after a career in journalism writing for the Sacramento Bee, he schlepped his way back to Ohio to start anew as a business owner, investing in the Anytime Fitness franchise. He now has two locations — the first on Elida Road and a second in Bellefontaine. But even though Lima is his hometown, he can’t help prefer the business climate in Bellefontaine.
“Their leaders are more in tune with growth,” Endsley said. “They get things done, and they get things done pretty quickly.”
Endlsey said he’s seen both private and public interests buy into an ideal of Bellefontaine and pursue it, getting rid of the “seedy bars” downtown and making sure that if a downtown restaurant wants an outdoor space, for example, the city would help make it happen.
“It just doesn’t work as well in Lima. I see it’s easier in a place like Bellefontaine,” Endsley said. And according to his conversations with other business owners, he’s not the only who says so.
Despite Allen County’s good job numbers and its steady investment by multiple industries inside and outside the community, the county is still watching its people — many highly-educated — bleed into other cities to find business opportunities. And it has yet to see its median wages even approach Ohio’s median household income. If trends continue, Allen County stays behind.
It’s difficult to identify exactly what needs to change — whether it’s the city, business leaders, market demographics or the perception of a city in its twilight years — but maybe by taking a look at similar Ohio municipalities and their approaches, a solution can be found.
“You can’t sell a donut.”
Vaughn Sizemore likes to talk, which is probably why he’s taken up salesmanship. The director of Downtown Marion, Sizemore jumps from topic to topic, hitting his points in sequence and throwing in a catchy phrase or two without losing his listener’s attention.
Sizemore’s job is to sell downtown Marion, and he likes to overstay his welcome in his favorite restaurants to get the attention of restaurant owners to do it. It’s how he got Rhonda Moor, owner and chef of the Mustard Seed in Bluffton, to invest in a new Mexico-fusion bar/restaurant in downtown Marion called Tres and how he added four upscale restaurants to Marion’s downtown in just six months.
“We don’t think we can get anything if we don’t go after it,” Sizemore said.
Downtown Marion is a non-profit organization tasked with making downtown Marion a vibrant cultural corridor, and according to Sizemore, he has a board of 15 active individuals who have bought into the idea. It took a little convincing because, at its heart, change is an uncomfortable idea, he said.
“Different isn’t always better, but better is always different,” Sizemore said.
The board now lets Sizemore just do his thing (“One of the standing board members called me a dog with a bone.”) as he tries to start conversations with business owners who might be a good fit for downtown Marion. So far, he’s gone after Amish furniture businesses, (“Their customer base is huge.”) a pizza restaurant owner in Delaware (“You only have to toss half of the pizzas to make it work.”) and in the future, he’s considering grabbing a call center business. He hears call centers employ a lot of people who would make a good lunch crowd.
Lima also has a downtown group organized similarly. Known as Downtown Lima Inc., with Aubrey Kaye as its director, its work is a little less sales and a little more marketing. Considering the perception of Lima by its residents, Kaye works to highlight the positive projects and people who are working to make it a better place.
“It has been very popular to talk bad about Lima,” Kaye said. “We’re getting there, but we’re not there yet.”
And there’s little argument that Lima’s downtown is steadily improving. As the partnership between the City of Lima and Rhodes State College to develop a training center downtown moves forward, and a number of housing developments begin to move past planning stages, that movement can offer optimism. But the number of empty storefronts can also breed discouragement.
“You’ve got to start with the energy in downtown,” Sizemore said. “You can’t find a successful city without a successful downtown. You can’t sell a donut.”
Whether Sizemore’s efforts will lead to economic prosperity for all of Marion remains to be seen, but the numbers don’t look too bad for Marion’s future.
In another decade or two, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Marion will jump ahead of Lima in terms of size. The city north of Columbus already has a higher median household wage than Lima, despite roughly having the same amount of people above the age of 16, a smaller overall workforce due to an older population and lower percentages of people with college degrees.
“Hard to Answer”
When Allen Economic Development Group President/CEO Jeff Sprague, Allen County Commissioners Jay Begg and Cory Noonan and Shawnee Township Trustee Chris Seddelmeyer visited the Miami County Building Department and cited frustrations with the City of Lima’s building department, commissioners later said the trip was a fact-finding mission. What facts were found?
First, a caveat: Miami County doesn’t compare that well to Allen County when it comes to history, industry and demographics. Trying to identify the reasons why Miami County is growing and has higher wages while Allen County stays stagnant isn’t a one-to-one comparison.
With that said, Miami County’s population has jumped above Allen County’s population since 2010. Miami County Director of Development Richard Osgood isn’t entirely sure why that’s the case.
“The proximity to Dayton makes sense. Unemployment is very low, but it’s also low in Allen County, so it’s not a precise indicator. It’s hard to answer that question.” Osgood said. “We got some builders that see there is a market for homes. We’re glad to see them, but I don’t know if it ties to proximity to Dayton, to job opportunities in the county or whatever factors.”
If there is a Allen County equivalent to Osgood, it would be Sprague. Both Sprague and Osgood do some of the same high level economic development tasks; they both identify possible commercial sites, offer tax abatements for investments, push workforce development and highlight the business benefits of the region.
“The proximity to Dayton area and the airport is a selling point,” Osgood said. “Water is a great resource here. We’re beginning to build workforce as a resource. Our selling points include the municipal utilities. They’re far more nimble than Dayton Power & Light, and the regional providers.”
As for how the Miami County Building Department compares to the City of Lima’s Building Department, there is one big difference. Miami County’s Economic Development Division is just across the hall from its Building Department. Both divisions, along with community development and zoning, are part of the Miami County Department of Development.
“It works well here in large part because the county’s economic development does not need to see what the cities are already doing,” Osgood said. “Our purpose is to support them and market them at a larger scale.”
The relationship between Allen County and the City of Lima has been a little less than cordial.
“We want to be above that bar.”
Allen County may have problems, but it does have some positive qualities going for it. Local leaders, such as Kaye and Noonan, both made the case for the quality of the county’s education, its safety and its low cost of living.
And it is attracting industry. Since 2011, AEDG has helped push through 29 projects in Allen County, Sprague said.
And it does have energy. From MakerFest to the Greater Lima Region to local community festivals, there are people working to make Allen County a better place.
But if other counties are overtaking Allen County as a better place to live, then Allen County and Lima will continue to be a popular subject to talk bad about.
“There’s a certain bar, and we want to be above that bar. If you’re not striving to be your best, you’re falling behind,” Allen County Commissioner Cory Noonan said.
Like Lyle Endsley, Noonan left Allen County when he was a young man. But he came back.
“I came back, and there was a reason I came back. While the cities are great, Allen County provides great opportunities,” Noonan said. “I came back to raise my family back here. I’m proud to raise a family here.”
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.