Quit bickering. Accentuate the positive. Re-invent the area. Get educated.
In a nutshell, those are some of the solutions offered by community and economic leaders who were asked “What can be done to increase the per capita income of Ashtabula County residents?”
Rick Coblitz, an Ashtabula business owner and Growth Partnership for Ashtabula County trustee, feels it starts with supporting the hometown businessman.
“We’ve lost a lot of business to outside the county via the Internet or whatever,” Coblitz says. “If the people of Ashtabula County would spend their money in Ashtabula County, that would allow businesses to be more profitable and be able to pay their people more.”
That’s a sentiment the executive director of the Ashtabula Area Chamber of Commerce, James Timonere, can concur with, as well. Timonere says there also needs to be a change of attitude on the city councils and school-boards, where bickering is at an all-time high. He says prospective employers and retailers pay attention to what’s on the front page of the newspapers, and, frankly, they’re finding the little wars tiresome and petty.
“We got to start making some intelligent decisions,” Timonere says. “We can’t be fighting these wars in the paper. The companies who are interested in coming in here don’t want to hear it or be a part of it.”
Ashtabula City Manager Tony Cantagallo knows of at least three industries in the city that are ready to exit because of the bickering. “Two of them pay a hell of a lot of income taxes,” Cantagallo says. “Two out of three of them have some of the highest paid jobs in the city. This is not a threat. People I do business with are saying ‘What are you doing there?”
“I think our community is in real trouble,” says Saybrook Township trustee Robert “Bob” Brobst. “Even though we have a Growth Partnership that’s working very hard to bring in business, I think a lot of (potential) business (investors) drive right through the area because they read about the bickering, drugs and crime going on here.”
responded to the series expressed similar concerns – the bickering and regressive mind-set of county, city and school boards is killing the community’s chances of progress. Readers say they are tired of personalties and personal business interests taking precedent over the good of the community when the same issues are debated, sometimes for years.
Timonere says one of the “intelligent decisions” that must be made to improve Ashtabula City’s economic climate is to re-instate tax abatement. He feels abatement is absolutely essential if the city is going to compete with other communities. “We’re competing with all the other areas around us, not to mention China, India and other places where businesses locate,” he says.
The pathetic state of the city’s housing stock, “Trashtabula,” is another issue that must be addressed. Timonere says visitors to the community don’t look straight ahead; they pay a lot of attention to the housing and commercial buildings that line the road. Those structures reflect the low per capita personal income and self-image of the city.
“You’re not going to get the high-end people here if that lifestyle is not here,” Timonere says.
A change of attitude about ourselves is in order, says Steve Sargent, executive director of the Samaritan House Homeless Shelter.
“We cannot change our image to outsiders until we change it for ourselves,” he says. “We have to see it as it could be and do everything in our power to get it there. We have to dream and then work to get it there.”
Coblitz says the community has got to pull together rather than keep ripping itself apart.
“It’s the only way it’s going to improve,” he says.
Dr. Jerome Brockway, superintendent of the Ashtabula County Joint Vocational School, says companies are looking for amenities in schools, culture, amenities and the overall positive atmosphere of the county, something that’s sorely missing here.
“The squabbling between political entities is not helping,” he says. “You are sending a perception, an image to the companies.”
Brockway says the county also needs infrastructure. The county’s purchase of Plant C could help make the area more attractive by providing water and, hopefully, electricty at a lower cost to industries. Brockway says the community also needs more sewage treatment capacity and buildings that are ready for occupancy.
“We don’t have the buildings available for companies to move into right now,” Brockway says.
Back to school
Cantagallo sums up the solution in one word: Education.
Only 12.3 percent of county residents 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 27 percent for the United States.
“I am of the belief that to make the county work better, we are going to have to move up our education level,” Cantagallo says. “People pay higher wages when they need someone to do something more difficult. It’s as simple as that.”
Cantagallo says Ashtabula City is ignoring two great resources, the Ashtabula campus of Kent State University and the Ashtabula County Joint Vocational School, in developing the education level of citizens. But Cantagallo also feels the basic skill level of many adult residents is so low, there needs to be an effort to get them back into the classroom, as well.
Specifically, he’d like to see a program whereby the courts would levy classroom time in lieu of fines. Drug-related crimes, in particular, occur out of economic frustration – drugs are a convenient and lucrative way to make a living when basic skills are lacking.
For others, it will mean moving from a high school diploma to a bachelor’s, and from a bachelor’s to a master’s or doctorate.
There’s a need to teach our young people about work, as well, says Saybrook Township Trustee Bob Brobst and a small business owner.
“Education is the number one thing,” Brobst says. “You need to develop a workforce so when people come here the young people are ready to work.”
Brobst says about 50 percent of applicants to his business and/or the township are rejected because of drug issues. Some fail their drug test on the first day of work. At times, finding workers with driver’s licenses can be tough, Brobst says.
He says work ethic is lacking in area young people, as is practical experience, something he attributes to the state’s very restrictive work regulations for young people.
“I think a lot of young people today don’t know how to show up for work, do a job, interview and dress properly for their first day on the job,” he says.
As for getting higher paying jobs to the county, the issue comes back to education, as well. Ashtabula County Commissioner Deborah Newcomb recalls having conversations with an employer who was looking at the county and would bring in jobs that paid an average of $70,000 each. But those jobs required a bachelor’s degree at minimum.
“We have to look at these high-tech jobs, but at the end of the day, you have to have the people who can fill them,” she says.
Kim Landis, executive director of ACCESS Ashtabula, says there is a countywide effort in the public schools to impress upon students at all levels that post-high-school education is not optional in today’s labor market. She says many students do want to return to the area or work in jobs that are available here, either because they like small-town living or have family here. Education is the key to making a better life for themselves, whether that’s in their hometown or a thousand miles from home.
“We are trying to get them to understand what will get them employed, and it’s not a high school diploma anymore,” she says.
Patrick Arcaro, executive director of Ashtabula County Job and Family Services, says his employees often deal with clients whose job skills are greatly reduced and/or lacking. “There are many ‘barriers’ that factor into people not receiving jobs: resumes are poorly written, the manner of dress is oftentimes ‘unconventional,’ punctuality is non-existent, motivation is low, and substance abuse is present – to name a few,” he says.
As for how to get people off the public dole and into productive lives, Arcaro says that’s a complex issue with many factors, including employers that offer less-than-full-time hours to skirt benefits, income inconsistent with the cost of living, a high population of aging residents and a weak tax base to support public schools and services, to name just a few.
There are no blanket answers; solutions must come one case at a time.
“We have many and great success stories of those that make it off of the public assistance rolls, but for every one of them, we have another that just cannot do it, either because of a lack of skills, or some other barrier which prevents it. Add having to pay child support to the equation, and it just amplifies the effect,” he observes.
Cantagallo says the city also needs to “dance who brought you,” and in his eyes, that means doing a much better job of promoting the lake, river and other natural assets to the tourists who come to visit the 22 county’s wineries. Tourism pumped nearly $300 million in to the local economy in 2005, but Cantagallo feels the city is not getting its slice. City council has hired an economic development director who will find ways to attract more tourists and their dollars to the city.
Rick Selip, president of Grand River Rubber, feels the county needs to follow the lead of Cleveland and other cities and re-invent itself. For example, Cleveland has embraced the medical market concept. Ashtabula County needs to find its own niche, develop it and promote it.
Selip says it’s also important for Ashtabula County to identify itself with the northeast Ohio region by participating in Cleveland Plus and other regional marketing efforts. According to Joseph Mayernick, executive director of Growth Partnership for Ashtabula County, that group is represented on the Team NEO Business Development Committee, Team NEO Canadian Business Opportunities Committee, the Neotec Board of Trustees and several other regional/state groups.
A regional approach also needs to be taken with government, says Brobst. “I don’t think the political people are doing enough among the political people,” he says.
Unfortunately, as soon as cities and townships start talking, the public gets worried about annexation.
Brobst feels the troubled local economy will force consolidation of services and taking a regional approach to pruchasing everything from office supplies to highway maintenance equipment.
“We are going to have to be better to the general public, and serve the public better while cutting costs,” he says.
Finally, Paul Bryant, a Realtor with Reality One, feels a rail line connecting the county to major metropolitan centers to the west would be a significant boost to the real estate market and county in general. Bryant says Ashtabula County has the advantage of low housing costs, which, when coupled with economical transportation, would make an attractive home base for professionals commuting to Cleveland.
“That would be perfect,” Bryant says. “Public transportation, no matter where you live now, is the way to go.”
What are you thoughts on how to improve the economy of Ashtabula County? E-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org for inclusion in our weekly Opine survey.
Leaders says high-profile bickering hurting area
Quit bickering. Accentuate the positive. Re-invent the area. Get educated.
- Reality Check
- Why are we hurting so? It’s time for a reality check.: Main story, Day one
- Beyond wineries and covered bridges … An introduction to reality check
What it is, how it’s calculated
Determining per capita income is a complex exercise that — at best — is a mathematical expression of a moving target.
In its simplest terms, per capita income is, according to the Ohio Department of Development, “the income of a given area divided by the resident population of that area.” Sounds simple enough, but arriving at the figure is not.
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