Ohio’s small cities are continuing to struggle.
That’s according to a recent study by the Greater Ohio Policy Center, a nonprofit advocacy group that focuses on economic growth around the state. The research was the result of a growing sense that the economic fortunes of Ohio’s three biggest cities — and Columbus in particular — are diverging from struggling smaller communities where some economic problems are more severe, said Alison Goebel, executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center. The changes led the group to take a closer look at small- and medium-sized cities, she said.
“When we talk about state-wide numbers or urban Ohio numbers, Columbus was skewing these numbers by 10 percent in a positive direction,” Goebel said. “We had a gut instinct feeling that things were not as rosy as the statewide narrative was making it out to be.”
A major finding was that in many small cities, a large number of potential workers have simply given up on the labor market.
“Of greatest concern in small cities are staggering declines in labor force participation rates — or the percentage of adults currently working or looking for jobs,” the report said. “In three small legacy cities — Mansfield, Portsmouth and Marion, the rate of adults in the labor force is a full 20 percentage points lower than Columbus, which has the highest rates in the state.”
The report, recently updated with 2015 data, found that since 2000 Ohio’s small cities have seen unemployment and poverty rise, while populations and home value have declined — often at more dire rates than seen in Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland.
“Conditions in small legacy cities like Chillicothe, Lorain and Middletown vary more than in their larger peers, but on the whole, these cities saw the greatest declines in economic health of any city type,” the study found.
Mansfield remains in the middle of the pack for smaller Ohio cities in terms of economic measures, the group’s research found. Mansfield experienced one of the larger declines in workforce participation among smaller cities, with the rate dropping 57.6 percent to 49.4 percent between 2000 and 2015, the study found. At 5.5 percent in 2015, Mansfield had one of the lowest unemployment rates among small cities studied.
Marion had the greatest loss in workforce participation of any smaller city between 2000 to 2015, dropping from 59.4 percent to 47 percent, according the the study. The city also saw the greatest loss in per-capita income of smaller cities studied. Nearly one in four residents in Marion lived in poverty in 2015, a number that improved slightly from 2014, the study found. Marion had one of the highest housing vacancy rates in the study among small cities at 8 percent.
“These findings demonstrate the critical need for intervention to secure the health of Ohio’s small and mid-sized legacy cities and the suburban, exurban and rural communities that surround them,” the report said. “Despite creative strategies and strong leadership, the economic and demographic headwinds in these places have proved challenging to overcome.”
But there are paths for improvement, Goebel said.
“We do not think this is the destiny of these cities,” she said. “There are opportunities and proven strategies for turning around these places.”
Such efforts can include eliminating blight, focusing on downtown renewal and workforce development initiatives, Goebel said.