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Chillicothe a Financial Bellwether?

If you're looking for a political bellwether city, go about 50 miles south of Ohio's capital city to the state's first capital: Chillicothe. There's new hope the city is also a financial bellwether after a state audit hinted Chillicothe might be turning an economic corner. Chillicothe has a long, rich history. It became Ohio's first capital in 1803 and has seen its share of booms and busts. That's clear standing in downtown, where a mix of historic businesses and new businesses show the city is still evolving. In recent years, it's been more bust than boom. "Everyone knows we've had financial trouble." Tom Spetnagel is the city auditor. He took office last year and had the tough task of laying off dozens of cops, fire fighters and other city workers to help plug a $2 million deficit. He says things were so tough. "We had to lay off school crossing guards. Try telling that to parents who send their kids to school," Spetnagel said. The problems weren't limited to the public sector. Major employers like the Kenworth Truck Company slashed position, cabinet maker Mill's Pride closed its doors, and many of the small downtown shops on Paint Street were seeing fewer customers. But that was a year ago. The city has since balanced its budget and in its latest audit, got a thumbs up from the state for getting its books in order. And now many of those downtown businesses are seeing customers return. Christa Montgomery owns Grinders Restaurant. She's seen more people eating out lately and is, for the first time, staying open for dinner three nights a week. "We're waiting to see how that goes over, whether it takes off. We haven't done much advertising, so we're taking some time to see how that progresses. And we've debated doing some soft-serve ice cream. So we're just keeping our possibilities open," Montgomery said. A few doors down, Molly Kunzelman helps a customer at Ivy's Home and Garden. Kunzelman's family owns the shop and she says the business struggled in recent years. But now she says "business is wonderful." When asked about the mood of her customers and her view of a local recovery, she pauses before saying "Optimistic. It's obviously a topic of conversation that comes around, so it is an ongoing concern. And people put a lot more thought into their spending; there's not a lot of frivolous spending." Well, except for Kathy Bruning. She's buying an afghan and scarf, not because she needs them but because she says she likes to support the downtown businesses. She agrees with Kunzelman about the mood of the town. "They're optimistc, I think, yeah. Other than that little plant down there in Waverly, what's it called, Mill's Pride. But other than that I think everything seems to be pretty good," Bruning says. Back in Chillicothe city offices, auditor Tom Spetnagel says that vies well for the rest of the country. "We're definitely a bellweather community; as Chillicothe goes, so goes the nation. And I think as long as we continue to see signs that there's a recovery, albeit a slow one, I think the rest of the nation will see the same thing," Spetnagel says.