Region recovery lukewarm

Jack Penning, of Sixel
Consulting Group, speaking to a group at BGSU’s State of the Region Conference. (Photo: J.D.

PERRYSBURG – Northwest Ohio’s economy continues to bounce back from the recession, but the improvement
still appears to be lukewarm.
"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
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
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.