EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles on economic development in Madison County.
Two-hundred years ago, foreign settlers first arrived in central Ohio. Eventually, businesses opened such as blacksmiths, inns and markets for farmers to sell their crops. These hot spots then coalesced into villages; some of which became Madison County.
Naturally, the economy evolved beyond blacksmiths and farmers’ markets. But for a rural county in America, Madison County is in a unique position to grow and change in a plethora of ways.
Rise of manufacturing
The rise of the American highway in the late 1950s and its extension in the late ’60s early ’70s was certainly a boon to Madison County. The interchange of Route 40, Route 42 and I-70 created a travel a growing hotspot in a main commercial artery prime for development.
The early 2000s saw the fruits of this modular growth with development of manufacturing into Madison County. Close to West Jefferson and London, auto parts makers, distribution facilities and more opened up shop in an area now known as the golden triangle.
“In general Madison County is what you call a slow growth county, population-wise. Of course there’s expansion, we’re seeing it in Plain City and West Jefferson for sure,” said County Commissioner David Dhume. “Development then began in the early 2000s, I want to say 2002 but that’s about the time, so while population growth has stayed no more than two percent, growth in business has been in leaps and bounds.”
Statistically speaking the changes could be seen in the county’s employment level. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that in Madison County, 1990 unemployment was at 4.2 percent. By the early 2000s, unemployment had decreased to around 3 percent, only rising during the mild-economic downturn during the period of 2003 to 2005.
A major shock wasn’t felt until the recession of 2008 when unemployment in the county began a slow rise from 6 percent to a peak of about 9 percent.
Dhume said government was hit hard with decreased revenues and painful cuts, citing that people became more frugal simply because there wasn’t much to go around.
However, the now developed manufacturing base remained making for a very smooth recovery starting in 2011. By 2014 unemployment reached pre-recession levels. Today it’s as low as 4.2 percent. In terms of income, by 2015, the average household is making about $6,000 more than it did in 2009 according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
“You want established companies that have a commitment to where they are at, London and West Jeff have that,” said Dhume. “This has helped create a positive impact on growth in both communities.”
David Kell, Director of Madison County’s Chamber of Commerce as well as Madison County Future Inc., the county’s community development corporation, said that the county’s partnership with its manufacturers and distributors is one of its greatest strengths in generating jobs.
“There have been companies that have grown more naturally through production, things like that,” he said. “But through some of the projects we’ve done, the job growth we’ve had … many companies in Madison County are expressing a need to hire more … Since I’ve started, we’ve had facilities expand here, we’ve had job growth investment that has all been positive for the community as a whole.”
One of its strengths in maintaining that growth is being in between Dayton and Columbus.
“Where we are located is actually far more helpful than not,” said Kell. “Especially from a workforce standpoint, we can draw our employees from the outside a lot.”
“Eleven counties feed into Madison County economically,” he added. “Columbus 2020 [a regional development organization] did a study on our labor shed and it reaches out as far into Marion County and even Logan. The majority we draw from are Clark, Madison and Franklin, in no particular order.”
Kell said that despite these areas that can feed into it, getting workers to come in is still sometimes challenging as well.
“It’s not just us; I don’t want to make it sound like we’re in a worse position than everybody else. Everybody’s experiencing this, finding people to fill the jobs that are available,” he said. “I think it’s a nationwide problem, from Indianapolis to Louisville, Michigan to Nevada … companies everywhere have this same issue.”
Dhume said it’s the best problem to have, comparatively speaking.
“Our businesses have more jobs and unfortunately there are workforce development hurdles we need to overcome. They’re finding some people simply not worth hiring,” he said. “But, if I had a choice between where we were at in 2007 and the challenges we face today, it’s a no-brainer. People can get training.”
To alleviate this disconnect, Kell said that companies have asked about helping create public transit options to get workers to the county’s biggest businesses.
Currently, Kell is working with Madison County Ride, a service of the county’s Board of Developmental Disabilities, to help create a shuttle service locally between shifts.
“We have a service locally that could be described as an untapped resource we could utilize for the business community,” he said. “A lot of these businesses could then tap into workers who just don’t have those transportation means.”
“Is there a better way to get people to work? That’s the question I hear most often, I mean we don’t have [something like], Columbus does,” he added.
Kell said the Central Ohio Transit Authority has explored opportunities in Madison County but overcoming cost and similar things of that nature are its biggest hurdles, making starting with local resources the smarter choice in the short-term.
The commissioners, the Chamber and CIC are all working together to establish public-private partnerships to ensure growth remains sustainable and can benefit the varied communities in Madison County. Some of these deals include abatements which all parties work together to help alleviate costs to companies for building facilities, such as a recent tax deal between West Jefferson and Jefferson Industries bringing in 20 more jobs and locking in 512 existing positions.
“We have communities talking to each other and we have a good environment to support all kinds of businesses,” he said. “Overall, we’re not perfect but nobody is. We have good services and organizations that help lay the foundation for this environment. We’ve got a good system in place to support more growth and opportunity.”
Kell said his goal was to see more housing and retail come to all of the county’s communities.
“We’re working on that,” he said. “It’s not easy. It takes time. I know a good amount of people understand that and I hope everyone understands that, we’re working on that in all of our communities.”
For that to be most beneficial to the populace, Dhume said he hopes to see a rise in incomes allowing some of these ventures to be homegrown.
“Rising disposable income can mean that money stays within the county and that helps our local businesses thrive,” he said.
In terms, of where the economy as a whole goes, Kell said it was likely to stay the same.
“I think you’re going to have a big push on logistics and distribution side of things,” said Kell. “West Jeff is a huge draw for that because of its location. We have 70 and 40, two corridors that shipping can pass through. But at the end of the day, [Agriculture] is kind of our bread and butter, it’s what we’re good at and I think we’re going to continue with that in the future.”
Dhume echoed this.
“Our soil is simply prime for farming and our farmers are great stewards of their lands,” he said. “It’s hard, prices are low but they adapt. Farmers are businessmen too. They find niches and avenues to stay competitive.”
Tomorrow in Part 2: Explore the restoration efforts to London’s historic downtown by public-private partnerships.
Maximilian Kwiatkowski can be reached at 740-852-1616, ext. 1617, or on Twitter @msfkwiat.