PERRYSBURG - Northwest Ohio's economy continues to bounce back from the recession, but the improvement still appears to be lukewarm.
|Jack Penning, of Sixel Consulting Group, speaking to a group at BGSU's State of the Region Conference. (Photo: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
"Things aren't looking too bad," said Michael Carroll, director of Bowling Green State University's Center for Regional Development. Carroll spoke Monday during the 12th annual State of the Region Conference, hosted by the CRD at the Hilton Garden Inn, Levis Commons. The event drew hundreds of business leaders, elected officials, academics and others.
"Certainly these are challenging times," said BGSU Provost Rodney Rogers during his opening remarks. He pointed out that matters such as infrastructure, technology, demographics, energy policies and other issues "could cause some to be concerned about where we are heading."
However, they also represent "all those great opportunities that we have."
Carroll, in his presentation, specifically examined conditions in the 17-county region that makes up Northwest Ohio.
Currently, the region has a labor-eligible force of 600,000, with about 554,100 of those employed. The unemployment rate is 7.7 percent, much better than the more than 13 percent seen at the height of the recession.
However, one difficult spot in the economy is the level of workforce education. More than 39 percent of working-age people in the area have only a high school diploma, much higher than the national average of just under 30 percent. The region is also trailing the national averages for those with bachelor's and master's degrees - 12.4 percent in the region with bachelor's degrees versus 17.6 nationally, and 7.2 percent with graduate degrees versus 10.3 percent nationally.
"One of the fundamental underlying weaknesses may be this," said Carroll. "We've got to get these numbers up."
Further, only about 870 area firms out of 63,000 are engaged in importing or exporting.
"We don't have a lot of international connectivity," said Carroll.
He additionally noted that 63 percent of the 16 large public firms in the area showed negative revenue growth last year, and 43 percent of them had negative employment growth. Since 2009, only about 6,600 jobs have been created in the region.
"We are very flat," said Carroll, noting Northwest Ohio lost 48,800 jobs in the recession.
However, a convergence is being seen in labor force and employment, a positive sign.
"Things aren't looking too bad. The numbers are going in the right direction. We're seeing some relatively positive trends."
Carroll emphasized that expansion and retention of small-to-medium sized firms needs to be focused on - and, given the small percentage that it represents in the local economy, "our future is not shop floor manufacturing employment."
Indeed, "those numbers are going to constantly go down because of this productivity gain," in which workers are constantly being displaced because of technology.
However, all told, "we're doing the right things so far," said Carroll.
During a panel discussion on the state of certain regional economic sectors, Jack Penning, of Sixel Consulting Group, discussed a comeback at Toledo Express Airport and noted challenges in the airline industry, including continued consolidation. There are now four major airline carriers, he said. In 1978 there were nearly 20.
"One of the specific challenges for Toledo to overcome is that the airport is on the side of the city that's towards Detroit," he said during a later question and answer session.
However, "as Detroit has lost some service over the last couple of years, Toledo has started to rebound."
Kevin Smith, of the Association of General Contractors of Northwest Ohio, noted that "things are looking up" in the construction industry. Increases in construction are projected across the board through 2017, he said, showing steady progress. However, he emphasized the need to "utilize local talent" to help support the region and create jobs.
"You've got to help feed the local economy efforts," said Smith.
Aaron Pitts of JobsOhio, speaking about the agribusiness and bio-health industries, noted that across the state Ohio is a food processing "powerhouse."
"There are companies that are growing" in the region related to that, including The Andersons, Heinz, and others.
He also said 13 of the top 50 Ohio employers are in the health care sector. "Our opportunity is to work with those folks" to build businesses in the area.
The event's keynote speaker was Tom Murphy, a former mayor of Pittsburgh currently with the Urban Land Institute. During Murphy's tenure as mayor from 1994 through 2005, Pittsburgh experienced a major turnaround that saw billions in economic development as well as the transformation of large areas of blighted industrial properties.
"We're all trying to find our place in the world," he said of industrial cities and metropolitan areas worldwide. The world "is getting fundamentally redefined."
Decisions need to be made based on where the Toledo area will be in the future, he said - not as it is today. Worldwide forces like globalization, climate change, technological innovation, infrastructure needs and demographics are changing the world rapidly and irrevocably.
"We are watching a fundamental definition in how people choose to live," Murphy said, including an emphasis on "walkable" communities and a de-emphasis on car ownership.
In the Toledo area, while manufacturing jobs declined nearly 30 percent in the last 20 years, professional and business services, and education and health services have increased significantly.
"It is always about leadership, and it's about leadership that reaches, not that is comfortable," Murphy said of positive transformation in cities, adding later that citizens need to want to invest in their communities.