Snapshot Of The Economic Crisis From Ohio

Ross County Courthouse

The Ross County Courthouse is a landmark of Chillicothe's historic downtown. Art Silverman/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Art Silverman/NPR
Heartland Cash Advance

The Heartland Cash Advance is a payday lender that people turn to when they need money. Art Silverman/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Art Silverman/NPR
Residents attend a dinner for the local Chamber of Commerce.

Residents attend a dinner for the local Chamber of Commerce. Art Silverman/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Art Silverman/NPR

In the bellwether Ohio city of Chillicothe, population 22,000, residents are worried about the economy.

"We're facing maybe some possible layoffs. Gas is always high in this area," says Vicky Mitchell, an employee at the Glatfelter Paper Mill, one of the city's two biggest private employers.

Mitchell's colleagues say they're worried about spending money to buy groceries — and about their shrinking retirement savings accounts. In this season of the subprime crisis, the bear market, financial panic and looming recession, these are the concerns that affect people's lives in many swing states.

The city of Chillicothe, and its voters, have seen grander days.

"I've never been rich, but I've always been comfortable. I used to go to McDonald's," says Sonya Massy, as she baby-sits her 3-year-old granddaughter at a downtown park. "It's hard to buy everything now. Unless there are two people working, you can't do it anymore."

At City Hall, utilities clerk Tammy Bonner sees residents' economic woes firsthand. She says more and more people are coming in not to pay their bimonthly bill for water, sewer and garbage — but to explain why they can't.

"People come in and ask for more extensions," Bonner says. "It's definitely taken an effect on the water department."

Mayor Joseph Sulzer has another measure of economic success or, in this case, downturn: The license plates on the cars parked outside the local Wal-Mart or Lowe's or the chain restaurants along Bridge Street.

"We serve as a regional shopping center for a lot of counties throughout this part of the state, and it would not be unusual, especially on weekend nights, to see automobile tags from a lot of the adjoining counties," he says. "We're seeing less of that. People are not spending as much eating out because of the high price of gasoline, or because people are concerned about what the future may hold: Am I going to keep my job or keep my house?"

Not Much To Celebrate

The facts about local business may be distressing, but the mood among Chillicothe's merchants seems somehow resolutely optimistic. At a monthly Chamber of Commerce event, more than 100 people came to dine under a tent in the parking lot of the local Harley-Davidson dealership.

But business itself isn't much to celebrate these days.

At the Kenworth Truck plant, which employs more people than the paper mill — almost 1,700 employees — in good times, management had been talking about boosting production. Instead, they've put workers on short work weeks.

"Right now, they are building 63 trucks a day, and the plant manager told me that if you want a truck, you can have it in two weeks now, whereas, in the past, they had a build rate of 90 or 100 and had to wait three months to get your truck," says Marvin Jones, who runs the Chamber of the Commerce and used to run the local paper.

The city is also a regional hub for health care, with a medical center and a VA hospital. Add two state prisons, and you've got a fairly diverse local economy. People here say it's worse in nearby Portsmouth. Like everywhere, the real estate market is in the deep freeze. And now there's the credit freeze to worry about.

Sulzer says the state of Ohio just tried to borrow $150 million dollars for low-income housing. But no one was interested in buying those bonds. So what will happen when the city of Chillicothe has to borrow a couple of million dollars to build a new bus garage?

'I Hope Jobs Will Come Back'

When people lose their jobs and the bills pile up, some turn to places such as Heartland Cash Advance.

Heartland is a payday lender. People borrow $100 for two weeks and pay $15 in fees and interest. They can borrow as much as $500 and the pay $75 in interest and fees.

A measure on the ballot in Ohio would cap the annual interest rate they charge at 28 percent. It's currently about 390 percent. Critics call that predatory lending; people in the business call it a service that some borrowers choose.

Mary Meyers, who runs the Heartland office at the corner of Bridge and Main, is worried that the proposed legislation could threaten the business.

"The people that come in are your average person that needs money to make it in gas," Meyers says. "Or they're sick and they need medicine until they get paid. They can't wait. They're sick. They need it now. ... Those are the people who come here."

As the keeper of information on clients, she has an encyclopedic command of her friends' and neighbors' dire straits. Her own story isn't much different.

"We'd been OK until a year and a half ago. Jobs weren't as easy to get," Meyers says. "My husband was working for a roofing company and wanted to change shifts — just because with the roofing company, you're laid off in the winter. It's kind of hard to find a job. After few months, he got another job, which he was just laid off from.

"I hope jobs will come back. The job that he was at wasn't the best job, but it was a job. It helped put food on table and gas in car," she adds. "There are just no jobs around here."

Meyers says she has had to explain to her two children that Christmas won't be the same this year.

Economists may argue whether the country is in a recession and when it started and how long it will last and how much it will hurt.

That's a very academic discussion for people in Chillicothe, where doing without has become routine for so many.

Produced by Art Silverman

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