Springfield, Ohio, Launches Efforts To Restart Struggling Economy

Sep 21, 2016
Originally published on September 22, 2016 11:36 am
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One theme running through this year's presidential race is that many Americans believe it is harder than ever to succeed. As part of our series with member stations, A Nation Engaged, we're asking what can be done to create economic opportunity for more Americans. NPR's Jim Zarroli looks at how one city in Ohio is trying to restart its economy.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Mike Catherwood stands in a cavernous hangar on the edge of a cornfield in Springfield, Ohio. He's surrounded by five or six Learjets in various states of disassembly. Nearly two decades ago, the retired Air Force mechanic and his partner decided to go into business for themselves retrofitting small planes.

MIKE CATHERWOOD: I was just an airplane mechanic. I met a couple of guys that had the same mindset that I had, that we could do this and do it ourselves and make some money and have some fun at the same time. And we decided to do that. And the rest is history.

ZARROLI: Today, his company, Spectra Jet, has so much work it's having to build a bigger hangar. There was a time when Springfield was dominated by one company, International Harvester, which employed 10,000 people at its peak. Today, there are still manufacturers in Springfield. But because of automation, they tend to employ a lot fewer people. Spectra Jet has just 21 employees. Tom Franzen is the assistant city manager.

TOM FRANZEN: The numbers are going to be different. You know, that manufacturing plant that maybe needed 2,000 people to turn out that product may only need 500 today. The footprint, the number of people required to do that same work, is just less today.

ZARROLI: The loss of so many jobs has caused Springfield's population to drop from more than 80,000 in the '70s to fewer than 60,000 today. And median income is down sharply. City officials are working hard to lure new businesses with some success. E.F. Hutton recently announced plans to bring several hundred jobs here to a building downtown. But like a lot of aging rust belt towns in the Midwest, Springfield faces enormous challenges. Lori Minnich was hired recently to head the city's small business development center. She says it can be hard for local businesses to raise the capital they need.

LORI MINNICH: The disadvantage and the challenge is we really don't have venture capitalists. So we don't have a large pool of individuals that want to invest in small businesses.

ZARROLI: Minnich says local foundations fund some small businesses. And they can sometimes qualify for government-backed loans. But the big money goes to places such as Columbus almost an hour away. That makes it a lot harder to attract the kinds of businesses that will keep young people around. Emily Taylor (ph) is a student at Wittenberg University here in Springfield. She wants to stay in the town, but Taylor hopes to be a forensic psychologist. And there aren't a lot of jobs in her field.

EMILY TAYLOR: Here it's kind of harder. There are, like, a couple open positions. There's like two or three. It's not very big but, like, Dayton is a lot bigger because it's a bigger city. They have more job opportunities.

ZARROLI: The lack of opportunity for young people is a problem that worries people such as Ed Leventhal (ph) who's lived and worked in Springfield for 40 years.

ED LEVENTHAL: So here's another weld job here.

ZARROLI: Leventhal owns a small metal fabricating company and employs about 50 people. He says he has trouble finding enough skilled workers who can also pass drug tests. At the same time, he has watched many people leave Springfield. Some executives who run local companies choose to live a half an hour away in the excerpts of Columbus.

LEVENTHAL: In the old days, we had a lot of family businesses. And the people who owned the family businesses lived here, raised their family here, sent their kids here. And those family businesses have, over the years, died off, closed, and some of those family members - there's no one left in Springfield.

ZARROLI: A few years ago, Leventhal started a second company that does metal finishing for manufacturers. He did so partly because he wanted to provide his son a job so he could stay in the area. Leventhal's two grown daughters now work on the East Coast.

LEVENTHAL: It's a problem for the economy because young people give vitality to a community. If you don't have young people then, you know, I think you're in a downward spiral.

ZARROLI: Springfield probably isn't in a downward spiral. There are jobs to be had, especially in light manufacturing and health care. But if Springfield is ever going to thrive again, it needs a lot more than that. It has to generate the kinds of well-paying jobs that will keep its best and brightest from leaving. And that's a much bigger challenge. Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.