Sunday, June 26, 2005

Chillicothe – the growth of a town

I’m currently in Chillicothe, a moderately sized town or small city, depending on your point of view, in the central part of the state of Ohio. It’s an interesting place in that it was the state’s first capitol and the first capitol of the Northwest Territory.

Like most larger Midwestern towns, it has a few industries in the town that help drive the economy, a hospital, a few historical locations within ten minutes' drive, several rather nice parks (including one which I enjoy taking my laptop to in order to do a little work while outside), and, to someone from a larger city, it feels more like one large suburb rather than a small city.

Relatively speaking, it’s a quiet place. This is both a positive and negative thing for the town. On the upside, it’s the kind of place a lot of people talk about settling down when they start a family. It has several schools to choose from, the people seem decent, and it tends to have a rather laid back atmosphere.

The city also proudly states that it was the first capitol and wants to be as highly regarded as the other big “C” towns (Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland). This is where the downside comes in.

You see, in order to become as large and/or important as one of the three aforementioned cities, you must attract two classes of people in addition to your average family man/woman. You *must* attract the younger people (college grads to people in their 30’s) and you *must* attract entrepreneurs.

These two groups tend to have a symbiotic relationship. In fact, the entrepreneurs tend to come from the first group because, for the biggest part those are the risk-takers. A lot of them don’t have to worry about supporting a family yet, so are more willing to put their personal financial stability on the line for the chance to make it bigger than they would otherwise be able to.

I grew up around this area and have lived in Chillicothe-proper for about a year. The one thing that’s always amazed me is that I rarely run into people in my own age range (I’m 25). I see grade school kids, high school kids, and then it magically seems to jump to people in their late 30’s and up. This is in spite of the fact that there is a branch campus for Ohio University in this town. It seems like all of the younger, independent people have left for, in their opinion, greener pastures.

There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, it’s quiet. Most of the younger people who grew up here moved to larger cities, whether in this state or in other states, in order to be somewhere that there are things they like to do – go to clubs (and I don’t mean bars. There is a difference), go shopping at someplace other than Wal-Mart, go to meet other people their age, spend the day at an amusement park, etc. This town doesn’t really have any of that. In fact, the closest place with those things is Columbus (one of the aforementioned cities).

Second, there are few, if any, jobs in their fields. The majority of Chillicothe’s economy is driven by manufacturing (Mead paper, Kenworth, YSK, etc), a few big box retailers, and fast food restaurants. Granted, there are small businesses for other things, a couple of computer stores, and the hospital, but that is, by and large, the town in a nutshell. In fact, many of the people who live here work in Columbus, which is an hour or so away and, with rising gas prices, is becoming less economical.

Having seen this town from a local’s point of view, it not only seems like the town isn’t growing all that much, it actually seems like it’s shrinking. I remember coming here when I was younger because the town had resources that my hometown didn’t have. Now that I’m here, I find myself driving to Columbus or ordering online in order to get many of the things that I need, because they aren’t here.

I realize that starting a business is a rather sizable risk and that any business takes time to grow, but this town is a great place to take that risk. Real estate prices are fairly low, it’s got the necessary infrastructure other than an airport, and the closest airport is about an hour’s drive away.

On top of the risk factor, however, there is a matter of human nature. People, for the most part, don’t tend to like large changes in their life. Many of the people who live and work here like their town the way that it is, and while they want to be more prosperous and have the conveniences of the larger cities, don’t want to deal with the downsides.

The downsides in this case are the extra noise and, in general, large changes in the way their town operates. What they don’t see, or choose not to see, however, is the fact that if more opportunities are not created for skilled jobs and for young people in general, the town is going to start a downward spiral that it may not pull out of.

The manufacturing industry is a great start for a town, but that’s all it is – a start. It, like every other industry, has limits and a town needs to have diverse opportunities and resources in order to survive; especially in today’s world where more and more people going to college in order to specialize in various fields.

I realize it’s a vicious cycle, but it can be stopped. It just takes risks, the guts to take those risks, and willingness on the part of the town to embrace change.

Despite the lack of things for someone my age to do here, I rather like this town. Personally, I’d love to see it grow.