RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
As the country celebrates its independence, it's a good time to check in and see how people are feeling about life in the United States. To get a sense of the economic mood, we traveled along state Route 7 in eastern Ohio. Route 7 runs through a swing district in a state that gave President Bush his victory last November. Here's NPR's Robert Smith.
ROBERT SMITH reporting:
You start seeing the billboards 40 miles before you get there--Phantom Fireworks, Route 7 on the outskirts of Youngstown, Ohio. Bruce Zoldan is the CEO of Phantom Fireworks. He's been in the business for 35 years. And he says it's true, fireworks are recession-proof.
Mr. BRUCE ZOLDAN (CEO, Phantom Fireworks): I can tell you since September 2001, this will be the fourth dramatic double-digit increase our company has had. I can't tell you for sure that it's attributed to what happened to us in 9/11, but I think there definitely has been a patriotic surge.
SMITH: Or perhaps there's a more depressing reason. Jason and Amanda Mayfield(ph) have a cart filled with fireworks for their two kids. They say that budget shortfalls in the towns along Route 7 mean that local fireworks displays have been cut short or even canceled.
Mr. JASON MAYFIELD (Fireworks Purchaser): Had to do something--yeah, it's the Fourth. I mean, we couldn't...
Ms. AMANDA MAYFIELD: (Fireworks Purchaser): Yeah. There's not very much anymore.
SMITH: Jason works in a meat-packing plant, and he voted for President Bush last year. But now he's not so sure of his choice.
Mr. MAYFIELD: I just think the economy needs--turned around. Minimum wage is too low, too many jobs are paying minimum wage, and it's not keeping up with inflation. I mean, it can be fixed--I'm not saying we're doomed or anything. But I just think it's going to need more work than what Bush is putting into it.
(Soundbite of thunder)
SMITH: Outside, nature is putting on her own pyrotechnic display with a classic summer thunderstorm. Just down Route 7, Debbie Shingleton(ph) runs an ice cream stand, and she's watching her afternoon profits get washed out.
Mr. DEBBIE SHINGLETON (Ice Cream Stand Owner): This is awful. I mean, it's good, but it's awful.
SMITH: Business is off this year, and it's not just the rain. Shingleton suspects that high gas prices are keeping tourists off this rural road in the middle of nowhere, as she calls it.
Ms. SHINGLETON: Ice cream is a treat, it's not a necessity. So it's been down from what it was last year. But I mean, I still love the country and everything. I just wish some things were different.
SMITH: The one thing she doesn't doubt is her vote for President Bush. She believes he is doing the right thing, both in Iraq and in cutting taxes. And she doesn't blame the high gas prices on him. What used to be considered a Democratic region of Ohio went for President Bush in 2004.
The rain ends by late afternoon, just in time for the Reunion Festival(ph) in Wellsville, Ohio. The streets of the tiny river town are filled with graduates of Wellsville High School, some of them returning after 10 or 20 years and finding a downtown with few businesses left.
(Soundbite of snow-cone machine)
SMITH: Don Crabtree is running the snow-cone machine for the festival, and explains that this area used to be the pottery capital of the world with 42 factories. Now there's just a couple.
Mr. DON CRABTREE (Snow-cone Machine Operator): I'm worried about the country right now. It's the greatest country in the world, and look what's happening. When your country has no manufacturing, when you're relying on the rest of the world to manufacture products, all we are is a service consumer goods country anymore. We don't hold China accountable for any actions, but yet they're going to be making everything.
SMITH: All along Route 7, you can see the remnants of the old economy. Large Victorian houses look out at the river, although many of them are now rundown and peeling paint.
(Soundbite of roof work)
SMITH: Scott Dresser is up on a ladder trying to repair the porch roof on a towering Victorian built in 1870. He's been buying and fixing up the houses on this downtown street in Steubenville, Ohio, as a hobby and a side business.
Mr. SCOTT DRESSER (House Restorer): It's a lot of work. Everybody thinks I'm insane.
SMITH: And it turns out he was also prescient. The jobs haven't come back to Steubenville, but it is only 38 miles from Pittsburgh and it's starting to attract more people who want to commute to the city. Being a suburb is one of the best economic solutions many of these towns have.
Mr. DRESSER: House values have gone up almost $100,000 in this neighborhood in the last four years. So I think that's pretty good.
SMITH: But Dresser says it's not easy. He points up and predicts that he'll be spending many more years worth of holiday weekends working on this beauty before it's finally finished. Robert Smith, NPR News.
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