Report: Things looking up for Ohio’s smaller cities


By Mark Ferenchik - The Columbus Dispatch



Ohio’s small and mid-sized cities are losing population at a slower rate, seeing declines in unemployment and poverty and upticks in per-capita income.

But these cities — Marion, Springfield, Zanesville and Mansfield, for example — still are dealing with many challenges that have hounded them for decades.

“They’re not in the tailspin they were in, but they’re not out of the woods yet,” said Alison Goebel, executive director of the Columbus-based Greater Ohio Policy Center, which studied recent census data to update a report on those cities.

The nonprofit group looked at demographic and economic data from what it considers Ohio’s 22 “legacy” cities — cities that aren’t suburbs — that are as large as Cleveland (population 387,398) to the smallest, Portsmouth (20,366). Columbus, an outlier because it is growing and doing well in a number of ways, is not included.

It found that:

• Population losses are slowing. These cities suffered larger population losses overall between 2000 and 2014, but those rates slowed from 2014 to 2018;

• Unemployment rates dropped between 2014 and 2018, although they still exceeded rates in 2000;

• Poverty rates are improving, and per-capita incomes were up in 2018, with some cities surpassing 2000 levels.

Goebel said an overall improving economy played a role, but efforts in some cities, where communities rallied around shared priorities, were also important factors.

“It’s not just the overall economy. It’s deliberate work on the ground,” Goebel said.

She pointed to two cities in particular: Sandusky, along Lake Erie and Hamilton in southwestern Ohio.

Goebel said Cedar Point and its parent company, Cedar Fair, continues to boost Sandusky’s economy, but the city is also diversifying. Bowling Green State University is opening a branch campus in its downtown, leading a rebuilding of the area.

Eric Wobser, Sandusky’s city manager, said his city, population 25,012, has had $100 million in public and private investment in its downtown over the past 10 years. That includes the new branch campus.

It also includes two market-rate apartment buildings and a new city hall. There’s also a new boutique hotel and a 20-employee financial firm. Altogether there are about 50 new businesses downtown over the past five years.

Meanwhile, Hamilton’s downtown occupancy rate is 95%, compared to 10% just 15 years ago. Goebel said that city — population 62,259 — has rebuilt and stabilized its housing stock while creating green spaces, public art and a new amphitheater that draws crowds of up to 3,000. Those developments are attracting bars, restaurants and other businesses.

Jody Gunderson, Hamilton’s economic development director, said an improving economy helps, including 3,000 new jobs since 2012. Also, a 17-member neighborhood organization has helped bring residents together to focus on issues.

Still, Goebel said that home values and long-term housing vacancies continue to be a problem in legacy cities in general.

Goebel’s group suggests that the state work more with these cities, with state investments helping with facade improvements, streetscaping, street art and transit-oriented development, as well as incentives for new housing, a dedicated fund to redevelop brownfields, and more money for public transportation.

“We can go a lot faster if we have more resources,” Gunderson said. “The state is going to be an important partner.”

Greater Ohio’s recent analysis is an update of its 2016 report, “From Akron to Zanesville: How Are Ohio’s Small and Mid-Sized Legacy Cities Faring?” The 16 smaller cities of the 22 legacy cities have with Greater Ohio created a Reinvention Cities Network to develop strategies to rebound.

To read the update, go to www.greaterohio.org

By Mark Ferenchik

The Columbus Dispatch

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