Prominent state and local leaders across sectors came together this week to talk about problems and opportunities facing southeast Ohio, with economic development changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic front and center.
The 2021 Southeast Regional Conference, hosted by Impact Ohio on Nov. 19 and sponsored by both the Ohio Democratic Party and the Ohio Republican Party, sought to connect “people, policy, and politics” through discussion of pressing issues.
Prominent leaders in attendance included Ohio Auditor of State Keith Faber, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, State Representatives Jay Edwards and Jason Stephens, and Governor’s Office of Appalachia Director John Carey, along with a range of nonprofit, business and university leaders.
The conference focused on three policy areas: supporting small businesses, leveraging ‘natural assets’ for economic development and enhancing the region’s ‘workforce ecosystem.’
Throughout each discussion, speakers emphasized changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, including the prevalence of remote work, increased interest in outdoor recreation and difficulties finding employees for certain jobs.
Various speakers discussed opportunities presented by the increased prevalence of remote work.
State Representative Jay Edwards suggested that remote work would allow people drawn to the beauty of the region to permanently relocate to the area — if the state and region support remote workers by investing in the region’s broadband infrastructure.
“If we had broadband everywhere here — with the beauty that we have getting people to want to come to this region — people working from home could come to this region and continue working, instead of signing a day off for vacation,” Edwards said. “These are things to capitalize on.”
Rachel Johanson, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation, also emphasized the need for broadband infrastructure to support the changing needs of the workforce, while citing the progress the region has already made.
“Companies coming in want to know about our progress — not just for their business themselves but for workers they may hire that may want to work remote, and just living in a region that’s more rural. They’re going to have that question,” Johanson said.
President and CEO of Appalachian Partnership & Growth Capital Glenda Bumgarner said the increased interest in remote work is “going to play very, very well in Appalachia,” especially if the state and region invest in broadband infrastructure and remote work spaces.
Complimenting the discussion of how the region’s natural beauty can draw remote workers, one panel discussion focused on leveraging the region’s ‘natural assets’ to draw more tourists and support southeast Ohio’s economies.
Executive Director of the Outdoor Recreation Council of Appalachia Jessie Powers emphasized the Baileys Trail System as a shining example of how increased investment in outdoor spaces can drive tourism and support local economies. Powers said projects like the Baileys can promote a sense of pride in communities, lead to better health outcomes for individuals, generate more tax revenue for governments and give universities a new attraction tool.
“The benefits that are going to be delivered are broad and wide,” Powers said of investments in natural areas.
Governor’s Office of Appalachia Director John Carey said southeast Ohio is on “a good pathway as far as leveraging our natural assets.”
Panelists pointed out that investments in the region’s natural areas have only grown more relevant as the pandemic has driven increased interest in outdoor activities.
According to a study commissioned by the Outdoor Foundation, 7.1 million more Americans participated in outdoor recreation activities in 2020 than in the prior year.
Many state and business leaders identified one of the largest issues facing the region’s economic development prospects as the much-discussed, national ‘labor shortage.’
“The new problem is, why isn’t everybody working in Ohio?” said Ohio Auditor of State Keith Faber. “The reality is that you can’t walk down a main street and not see help wanted signs.”
These concerns were discussed in depth during the final panel of the day, on small business development.
“As an employment staffing firm, we had to get more creative in finding people,” said Larry Kidd, president and CEO of the temp agency, :hire. “We’re getting them to come in, but we can’t get them to stay — they don’t want to continue to work.”
Steve Evans, son of Bob Evans and founder of Steve Evans Country Sausage, echoed the concern. While Evans said his company did well during the pandemic and was able to remain open while other businesses closed, he added that “we just don’t have people to work.”
Evans said while he loves “working with folks from Appalachia” and that “you’re not going to find better people to work with,” his company has increasingly hired people coming into the area from Mexico and Afghanistan to address what he views as a shortage of workers.
The civilian labor force participation rate remains multiple percentage points below the pre-pandemic rate, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Prominent Republicans have blamed enhanced unemployment benefits for the labor shortage. A recent article in The New York Times, however, suggests a larger web of factors, from ongoing concerns related to the pandemic to workers relying on savings as they seek jobs with higher pay, more flexibility, or better working conditions.
Other topics discussed at the conference included investments in trade and vocational schools, connecting people who grow up in the region with local jobs, the accessibility of Ohio’s elections, the state’s current redistricting process and the role Ohio University plays in the region.