Ohio: The new Florida?

I’m heading back to Ohio tomorrow. And I’m miss the daily runs in Hilton Head, although it took three days to get used to the heat and humidity at 5 a.m. I probably would done better this morning by not reading e-mails and the online newspapers before my run. Here’s why.

The Wall Street Journal (at least the online version) printed a really negative — but unfortunately, truthful and accurate commentary about Ohio by Chester E. Finn Jr: “The Self-Inflicted Economic Death of Ohio.” (By subscription; if you can’t get it, e-mail me for a copy.)

Ouch. Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to live in Ohio. And, well, that’s one of the points in the article. Finn writes:

Once known as the Mother of Presidents, Ohio is now getting poorer, older and dumber – and making all the wrong moves to reverse the situation.

Didn’t someone once opine that it doesn’t matter what they print about you as long as they spell the name right? Bet it wasn’t the economic development folks throughout Ohio. Publicity like this in one of the leading newspapers in the world you could do without. Team NEO — please make sure no one circulates this to member organizations as an example of a national media placement about Ohio.

More from Finn:

But as a formula for economic revival, it is madness. Ohio already has the fifth-heaviest state and local tax burden in the country (up from 30th in 1990) and finds itself stagnating. Its unemployment rate, 6.3%, is above the national rate of 5.5%, even as the state’s work force shrinks as people emigrate. Ohio’s median household income is also falling – in 2006 it was $44,500, down 0.5% from the previous year – while the national figure ($48,500) was up 1.6%. During the closing decades of the 20th century, incomes rose twice as fast across the country as in Ohio.

The state has been deindustrializing for ages – the sprawling General Motors and NCR plants of my Dayton childhood are long gone. Every metropolitan area has seen manufacturing employment plunge. The state lost more than 200,000 nonfarm jobs over the past seven years alone. Of Ohio’s 10 largest corporations (including Procter & Gamble and other well known companies), just two have posted positive returns so far this year. A surefire way to have one’s portfolio underperform the market these days is to invest in Ohio.

OK. Can it get any worse? Ah, yeah.

But the distance to be covered is vast. Ohio ranks 41st in the percentage of adults with bachelor’s degrees. Though it has many fine colleges, their young graduates don’t stick around. They head for the coasts or for “happening places” in between, none of which (with the partial exception of Columbus) happens to be in the Buckeye State.

Bright Ohio kids aren’t even enrolling in nearby colleges. The Cincinnati Enquirer recently reported that almost half the top seniors in local high schools were headed for out-of-state campuses. As jobs and young people exit, the remaining population ages. The Census Bureau projects that Ohioans over 65 will rise to 20% by 2030, up from 13% in 2000.

Gee. Just like Florida — but without the sunshine.

Too bad, really. I’ve lived in Ohio now for 40 years. And these aren’t new issues. When I was working at BFGoodrich, we spent a lot of time — and a lot of money — working on our own and with organizations to “sell” living in Northeast Ohio. It was very difficult to recruit talented individuals – although the area had and still has plenty going for it: inexpensive housing (relative to other cities/states), generally short commutes, good public and private schools and major league cultural activities and sports teams (discounting the Browns, of course). Shorthand view: good place to raise a family. But it was always an uphill fight.

And the perception is that it is a fight that the state is not winning despite the best efforts of many talented and committed people, including those at Team NEO (now headed by a former Goodrich associate Tom Waltermire) and similar organizations throughout the state.

I was thinking a lot about that as I was running this morning. Mary and I are going to make a decision soon about whether to stay or go. And I expect that will be true of a lot of people — young and old — in the next few years. For the young, probably will come down to jobs and communities that offer a better quality of life beyond raising a family — which most communities offer if you really think about it. For the old (more mature?), there will be a lot of decision points, but here’s two: (1) can’t afford to leave because housing values in Ohio make it virtually impossible to relocate to certain areas where the housing prices are much higher, and (2) relocate to a place where you can enjoy a higher quality of life now that raising a family is no longer an issue.

And actually I’m rooting for Ohio here. This weekend in Columbus some of my friends are attending PodCamp Ohio, an event that I’m sure is bringing together plenty of young, talented and enthusiastic young people — just the kind we need to keep in the Buckeye State.

Maybe they can put together a podcast for Gov. Strickland and others. Here’s the message: Get your economic act together. Make it a priority to keep young people in the state. Set aside the usual politics that are a roadblock to accomplishing anything. And do it now. If young people continue to flee the state today — Ohio is Florida without sunshine tomorrow.

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