Marion leaders push for economic revitalization
Marion, Ohio's population grew by leaps and bounds in the latter half of the 20th century, fueled by the engines of American industry.
But it hasn't been all prosperity. Now, an effort is underway to revitalize the city.
“Everybody here is working together, and that's what's exciting about being in a community like Marion," said Gus Comstock, director of the economic development agency Marion Can Do!
Working together, Comstock said, not only to grow jobs, but to change perceptions.
"Marion had kind of got tagged as having a serious drug problem," he explained.
He and others decided a compelling claim was needed to shake that image, and so Marion declared itself "America's workforce development capital."
Marion Can Do! recently commissioned an analysis of Marion's economic and population trends.
"In a real sense, it's like a tiny Ohio. You've got an urban part, you've got a suburban part, and you've got a pretty significant rural part," said economist Bill LaFayette, who compiled the report.
LaFayette said a strong employment base has helped Marion's population hold steady in recent years, despite an economic downturn.
"Although there have been layoffs from large manufacturers, they're not to the extent that they are in other places, which have just decimated communities like Youngstown," he said.
Manufacturing accounts for a quarter of Marion County's total employment, nearly triple the national average.
The biggest player by far is Whirlpool, which employs some 2,000 workers. The company first set up shop in Marion in 1955.
“So our operations produces approximately four million clothes dryers every year out of this facility," said plant director of operations Kevin Gniazdowski. "So we're the only dryer manufacturing plant for Whirlpool in North America."
He said Marion is a great place for manufacturers.
“Marion is a great place to be because especially if some of our partnerships with local education partners. So we have great technical schools right here in Marion that are a tremendous pipeline for us," Gniazdowski said.
Not far from Whirlpool is the new headquarters of Star Turbine, which machines parts that support the utility industry.
Star Turbine President and CEO Colleen Cordova said they hope to add 22 more jobs in the next five years, thanks in part to a $50,000 JobsOhio grant.
“We'll help Marion grow, provide jobs. And really we're trying to make it a place that everybody can be proud of," she said.
Small companies like hers lack the infrastructure and efficiencies of large corporations, Cordova said. Providing affordable healthcare benefits has been a challenge.
“To get great people, we have to have great benefits and it's really hard on us," she said. "If the state would give you a way to work together so we could provide better benefits, it would be a really big help.”
Looming large is the arrival of Intel in Licking County. LaFayette said Intel's primary suppliers likely won't set up shop in Marion, but the city could still see some benefit.
More broadly, he said, Ohio has a diverse economy, and communities like Marion should be playing matchmaker, looking for ways to mate the needs of the local employer base with other suppliers across the state.
“Marry the gaps and one region with the strengths and another region and send more contracts to Dayton and fewer contracts to Denver," LaFayette said.