Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Community Conversations

Economic Woes Spark Fruitful Discussion
by Clay Flaherty, AmeriCORPS*VISTA

Rural Action hosted a panel discussion titled “How the National Economy is Affecting Us Locally” on October 28 at Trimble Middle School in Jacksonville, Ohio.

The panelists who spoke were Jack Frech, director of Athens County Job and Family Services (ACJFS); Bill Sams, regional director of AFSCME; and Dr. Michael Mark, CEO of the Nelsonville company ED MAP.

More than 20 other people attended the community conversation, which was held in the library of Trimble Middle School. Notable attendees included Dave Hodapp from the office of Senator Sherrod Brown, Mark Skillings of Ohio University’s Appalachian Scholars’ Program, and Mary Mitchell, principal of Trimble Elementary and a Rural Action board member.

The focus of the discussion was how Appalachian Ohio could react to, and attempt to assuage, the economic hardships facing the country as a whole. Michelle Decker, the executive director of Rural Action, opened the conversation by asking how communities in our region need to think about value and investment in light of the times.

“As values start to drop and interest rates go up, everything has to be re-assessed.” she said. “What do we value? What should we as a community be reinvesting in?”

Jack Frech, along with many other people, talked about the strain that a lack of “safe lending practices” and a preponderance of institutional greed have placed upon local economies. Frech talked specifically about the lean times that traditional welfare services are now facing as more and more people look to them to make ends meet.

“There are families in Athens County who aren’t eating every day; they don’t have electricity in their homes,” he said. “Now that the economy has gone bad people who never thought that they would need this help, now find that they may need it. And when they get everything that they’re entitled to, they still can’t make it through the week.”

Much of the conversation of the evening centered on the need to fix a broken welfare system, as well as provide better services to those in need. Frech himself talked about the need to reinvest resources and manpower, or risk the entire facade collapsing in upon itself.

“We’ve really allowed this whole safety net system to deteriorate by not acknowledging that it was there,” he said. “Now the demands on food pantries and private institutions are really burning people out.”

And while much of the conversation was centered on welfare benefits, there was also quite a bit of discussion about the impact upon jobs and employment – specifically in Athens County.

Dr. Michael Mark presented a slightly different side of the economic story, speaking about the new demands and obstacles that are being placed upon smaller, independent companies as credit markets contract – as well as the struggle to maintain steady employment numbers. He is the CEO of ED MAP, an educational supply company that deals mostly with textbooks and employs about 100 people in the Nelsonville area.

Mark said that the economic downturn, while catastrophic for larger companies, has given an unexpected window of opportunity for smaller companies in less metropolitan areas – including his.

“The interesting thing that is occurring is that there’s so much chaos, with so many larger companies out there, that the money is starting to bypass them and go into the smaller companies,” he said. “It’s an odd silver lining to an otherwise ugly situation.”

Mark was also quick to remind those gathered that although times were rough, many people were experiencing hardship for the first time. “As bad as we have it, and as hard as it is to live here – these are people who have really lived the good life, the over-extended life,” he said. “Reality is really hitting those folks.”

Bill Sams, speaking from the position of union workers, was quick to enumerate the reality that Mark spoke of during his part of the panel discussion. He began his segment by talking about the harrowing state of industrial and manufacturing jobs in Ohio.

“We’ve gone from an industrial base to a nation that waits on other people,” he said. “Ohio is losing manufacturing jobs – every third day, a business leaves Ohio.”

Sams said that the recession of well-paid blue-collar jobs is a sizable part of the strain being placed upon the welfare infrastructure that Frech spoke of earlier. Whereas such jobs were once able to support a workforce, many such people are now finding it necessary to take on additional jobs as well as look to welfare assistance. He echoed Frech’s concern for the sustainability of many safety net programs.

“Too many people have had to rely upon the social institutions, which themselves have been drained,” he said.

He argued that the solution to the problems of the region was to discover new sources of revenue and investment for the area. “I think you have to realize that there are lots of other unknown avenues of investment,” he said. “There is a lot of money that flows – you have to turn over leaves to find it and bring it back to Athens County.”

Those attending the meeting were also given a chance to speak, and ask questions of the panelists. Mary Mitchell spoke at length during the discussion, talking about the need to capitalize on the inherent value of the tight-knit communities in Appalachian Ohio.

“I feel like we let things happen to us, instead of asking what we have to do,” she said. “It has to be people asking what we are going to do.

In response to Sams suggestion of finding ways to invest more money in Appalachian Ohio, Mitchell suggested that there should be a push to showcase the benefits of leaving in smaller communities, using Glouster as an example.

“Why aren’t we doing something to bring people in; the cost of land is so inexpensive,” she said. “We need to look at what we have and capitalize on that. Glouster is a very strong community.”

Dave Hodapp, representing the office of Senator Sherrod Brown, agreed with the concerns those assembled. “We need to figure out a way to get these people what they need every month,” he said.

The conclusion of the discussion seemed to be that the most rapid, and equitable, solution to the problems and hard times at hand was to organize the region politically and socially and begin a community discussion on a larger scale.

“What I think is one of the tragedies that has happened in this country is that we’ve lost the ability to have a national conversation,” said Mark Skillings of Ohio University. “We don’t have dialogues…even politics is a zero-sum game.”

“We do have power,” he said. “We just have to organize.”

After the panel discussion ended for the evening, many people stayed afterwards to continue their conversations -- speaking in small groups around the room. Phone numbers and email addresses were exchanged, and there was a sense that perhaps the most important step to making things better is to gather together and simply speak.

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