Ohio Scoreboard Company Down But Not Out

Bob Westerfield, owner of Side Effects Inc.,  stands in front of the company bus i i

Bob Westerfield owns Side Effects Inc., a Dayton business that seeks advertisers, then produces scoreboards for high schools around the U.S. The company's revenue had grown in each of its 14 years — until last year. David Greene/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Greene/NPR
Bob Westerfield, owner of Side Effects Inc.,  stands in front of the company bus

Bob Westerfield owns Side Effects Inc., a Dayton business that seeks advertisers, then produces scoreboards for high schools around the U.S. The company's revenue had grown in each of its 14 years — until last year.

David Greene/NPR

See more photos from Dayton, Ohio, and the rest of the road trip.

Staying In Touch

Follow David Greene as he travels the country, and help him find interesting stories along the way.

On the road from Michigan to Ohio, the bad economic news kept blaring from the radio: new layoffs, more foreclosures, struggling public schools — and Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland's state of the state speech.

He said no one will be spared.

"I must ask all Ohioans to accept the sacrifices that these times demand," the Democratic governor said.

As Strickland gave that warning, I was on my way to meet Bob Westerfield, one guy who is feeling the ripples from this recession. I first met him in Michigan, where he was snowmobiling.

Westerfield owns a company called Side Effects, in an industrial complex off Interstate 75, and he invited me to go see him again when I made it south.

Side Effects produces scoreboards for high schools, and Westerfield wanted to take me to a basketball game so I could see one of the scoreboards in action. But a foot of snow caused every game around to be canceled.

Knowing how to satisfy a radio reporter, Westerfield played some sound and video of a recent game on his computer.

"This is Springboro High School here," Westerfield says. "Jake takes it and slams it home. You can see the scoreboard on the east wall in this video. On this scoreboard happens to be River Valley Credit Union, Wayside Collision and Cub Foods."

The scoreboards that Westerfield's firm makes have banner advertisements that scroll every minute or so. An ad for pizza flips to an ad for the bank, and so on.

Revenue Model At Risk

Side Effects has grown — Westerfield now provides scoreboards for schools around the country.

Here's how the company works: Side Effects gets money from advertisers, then has a scoreboard built. There is usually $5,000 to $10,000 left over, and the company splits the profit with a school district.

"I don't know if there's a better way to state that I am this city or this community's business than being on the high school scoreboard. I mean, you can't get much more American pie than that," he says.

For years, Westerfield made that pie, and everybody got a piece. He's still trying to hold on to that feel-good mission, but now he's in the cross hairs of the recession. He says he's not in danger of losing his business, but he's feeling the pinch. He's beginning to get calls he never got before — especially from banks, Realtors, car dealerships. They can't come up with the money they owe for their ads.

"We had a Realtor up in Grand Haven, Mich., who said the same thing: 'I just can't afford it due to some things. I can't afford it. Just take me off,'" Westerfield says. "Well, I can't just take you off. We bought this scoreboard with the idea we'll get your money."

On the other side of the business, there are the schools. Especially in Ohio, but elsewhere, too, public schools are cash-strapped. Side Effects employee April Bellar has been hearing from schools demanding their slice of the pie ahead of schedule.

"My calls from schools are up 70 percent, where athletic directors are just panicking, asking, 'Where's my revenue share? Where's my revenue share?'" she says.

April says when she got here in 2004, schools usually called to thank her for the new scoreboard in the gym.

"It was the only job I ever had where everyone won," she says.

Because advertisers are not paying, or are paying late, Side Effects' cash flow is down by 20 percent. What's more, Westerfield knows his company is a gauge of the recession. He sees every day how desperate schools are for money. And he feels it when a business is short on money or, worse, closes, leaving behind an ad on a scoreboard.

"I'm age 51, and I've never lived through times like this," Westerfield says.

Praying For A Better Day

He says he doesn't know when these times will end, but he's hopeful President Obama will figure out a way to lift the country out of recession.

Westerfield is a Republican and was no fan of Obama during the campaign. But now, he says, "I'm not only willing to give him a chance — I want to give him a chance."

And so do other people.

When I started this trip through Michigan and Ohio, I expected to hear a lot of despair. And it's out there. But I've also heard a lot of people who are muddling through, keeping faith, even laughing.

Here are a few of the people I've met during this first week — starting with Shane Bailey, who lost his job and doesn't know how he'll pay the rent.

"All my friends, even though we're probably in our late 20s, early 30s, they're living together like a bunch of frat houses," Bailey said, noting that he's ready to do that, too, if he has to.

Joanne Umbrasas of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., offered: "You know, one of the things we always laugh about here in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is we're economically depressed all the time, so we didn't know there was a problem."

Over and over again, I heard people say they're not giving up hope — at least not yet.

Ali Alhalmi, owner of the Lafayette Coney Island restaurant in Detroit, summed it up: "Nothing you can do," he said. "We just work for a better day, pray for a better day coming."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.