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, including one held Thursday in Lima, 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, Springfield and Lima. 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.
In Lima, we heard that location is an asset because of transportation infrastructure and proximity to the U.S. population. That’s true, but we heard the same in Dayton, Springfield and Columbus. That begs communities to be creative with a convincing statement, “Our location is unique because…”
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. Have we 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 percent,” 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. That theme emerged as a definition of a vibrant community: Ohioans want respected 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 media collaborative. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.