What's your future, SW Ohio?

The economic numbers tell a brutal story for the Dayton area going back nearly 50 years. Add an addiction crisis that has claimed 1,000 Montgomery County lives since 2010, tornadoes, racial tension and a mass shooting and one must wonder: Montgomery County, what’s the future?

Ohio news organizations are asking a similar question in community conversations across the state, some in areas that have fared worse, and some better than Montgomery County.

The conversations, open to all, are coming to Dayton, Trotwood, Kettering, Lebanon, and the Springboro-Franklin area Sept. 29–Oct. 7, and are sponsored by the Dayton Daily News, WYSO public radio, WHIO television and radio, Soapbox Cincinnati and Your Voice Ohio, which is a statewide media collaborative of more than 50 news outlets.

People will sit at tables as equals with journalists and leaders to discuss what their hopes are and how those might be achieved.

More than 1,000 people have participated in the Your Voice Ohio media project in the last two years to discuss addiction, the economy and most recently, what the community agenda should be as national elections approach in 2020 and many Montgomery County communities and schools hold elections in November.

Journalists use the conversations to better represent the diverse voices of the community as they report on trends, solutions, and hold public officials accountable.

The experience across the state is that people ask news outlets to write about solutions that offer hope.

So, in the Dayton-area meetings, residents will be asked:

  • What does a community look like where people are happy and live fulfilled lives?
  • What would you change about your community to move in the direction of happy and fulfilled lives?
  • What are the assets of the community that can be applied to making change?
  • What are actions that can be taken by leaders, people and journalists to can bring about those changes?

In previous meetings, journalists and public officials walked away with ideas that came from respectful dialogue. In Akron, for example, a simultaneous scientific telephone poll suggested people were concerned most about road repairs, snow removal, and inadequate government services. But when about 200 met in dialogue, the conversations became more complex, they identified shared concerns, and developed solutions. People also realized that they have a role and were energized by what they could do.

In the Marietta-Parkersburg area, conversations about addiction resulted in improvements to an addiction hotline, creation of a drug court, and research on which treatments are most effective for addiction recovery.

In Warren, the only area to experience a steeper and longer economic decline than Dayton, residents said that the community should stop waiting for outside help and instead focus on sustainability and resilience from within.

After the session, one Warren resident wrote this thought to be shared: “Our community as a whole is loving, challenging, empathetic, and resilient. We want to rise to set the example for the world again! We just need to come together on where to begin.”

How big of a challenge does Montgomery County face?

Dayton is racially segregated. Maps of where people live show clearly that east of the river is predominantly white, and west is predominantly black.

The Ku Klux Klan attempted to hold a Memorial Day weekend rally in the city this year, and the New York Times in 2017 came to Dayton to write a story on the normalization of white supremacy.

Race has been an issue in conversations elsewhere. In a predominantly white suburb of Akron, residents cited the lack of diversity as a deep concern and they discussed ways to encourage appreciation for differences.

As for tornadoes, the recent experience in Trotwood, Dayton, and surrounding communities this year is becoming more common. Data from the National Weather Service show the frequency of Ohio tornadoes has increased since 1950. Stopping tornadoes isn’t likely, but are there solutions to keeping people and property safer?

And what to do about the economy — an issue that has challenged the Dayton area so long that those who knew the good times are a rapidly diminishing number.

Unlike most of Ohio, economic decline was underway in the Dayton-Springfield area for 30 years prior to year 2000. The only area in Ohio that experienced similar economic numbers is the former steel-producing Mahoning Valley of Warren and Youngstown.

Upscale suburbs often aren’t spared as their growth is impacted by the local economy. Kettering median household income, for example, remains above the state rate, but not so in comparison with the nation. In the year 2000, Kettering income was 7% above the national rate; now it’s 7% below. The percentage of individuals in poverty has doubled in that time.

The most significant causes of recent decline are automation and foreign competition. After the 2001 recession, manufacturers rapidly automated factories and an economic tailspin began across Ohio from which it has yet to recover.

Median household income in Ohio fell at the second-largest rate in the nation, and Montgomery County fell even more.

Former Akron Beacon Journal investigative reporter David Knox was hired by Your Voice Ohio to provide data at the county level, over time.

His data, available for public view, shows that since the year 2000, Montgomery County has changed in these ways in comparison with Ohio’s 87 other counties:

  • Population has declined by more than 27,000 or about 5 percent. Sixteen counties are worse, among them Cuyahoga (Cleveland), Trumbull (Warren), Mahoning (Youngstown), Clark (Springfield), and Richland (Mansfield).
  • Median household income tumbled 20%, or nearly $12,000 a year. That’s the equivalent of tuition at a state university. Montgomery County’s decline was 10th largest in the state and began about 1970.
  • The percentage of people obtaining a four-year college degree grew at the fourth-slowest pace in the state. Meanwhile, 27% of the population has a college degree, compared with 31% nationally and about the same rate in Ohio.
  • The number of jobs fell 16%, compared with 2% for the state. Moreover, Montgomery County began to lose jobs in the 1990s, so that since the peak in 1990, one of every five jobs disappeared.

What is the path toward happy and fulfilled lives?

Join the two-hour conversations. Refreshments will be served.

For more information and to register, please click on the location and date:

Read more articles by Doug Oplinger.

Doug Oplinger is former managing editor of the Akron Beacon Journal where he worked for 46 years. He now is the project manager for Your Voice Ohio, a collaborative of more than 50 news outlets in Ohio, sharing resources to better represent the voices of Ohioans in the democratic process.

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