Athens County remains ‘distressed,’ feds say | Local News

New economic data shows a lot of people in Athens County are not doing well right now, and it appears to be even worse than last year.

Data from the Appalachian Regional Commission classifies Athens County as “distressed.” The ARC compiled the numbers for the current fiscal year (2018) for Athens and the other 31 counties in Ohio’s Appalachian region and counties in the 12 other states that are classified as Appalachian (this includes some entire states and parts of others).

Distressed is the lowest of five designations.

“Which classification a county falls into determines what type of funding and assistance is available to that county through the Appalachian Regional Commission,” said Bret Allphin, development director for the Buckeye Hills Regional Council. “Since 2002 Athens has been classified as ‘distressed’ every year except 2008 and 2017.”

In 2017, Athens County was “at risk,” just one notch better. The other categories are, from worst to best, “transitional,” “competitive” and “attainment.”

In addition to Athens, three other Appalachian Ohio counties are classified as “distressed”: Meigs, Scioto and Adams. No county is at the highest designation – “attainment.”

ARC’s economic classification system compares each county’s averages for three economic indicators – three-year average unemployment rate, per-capita market income and poverty rate – with national averages.

“ARC has been making investments in Athens County for over 50 years,” said Allphin.

Some of the projects funded over the past five years are $500,000 for street improvements in Athens to provide better access to Athens Mold and Machine and $250,000 for Tri County Adult Career Center for a workforce training center. Total funding was more than $1 million.

Still, Athens County is “distressed.” Why? What’s being done about it?

“The problem is low living-wage job creation and limited developable assets with adequate infrastructure and utilities in the city and county,” explained Athens Mayor Steve Patterson. “However, the city and county are working closely with the Athens County Convention & Visitors Bureau, Athens County Economic Development Council, the Athens County Port Authority, Ohio University, Hocking College and many other entities to attract new businesses to our county which will produce living-wage jobs to move the needle away from being a distressed county.”

Also asked what’s being done, Athens County Commissioner Lenny Eliason named three actions.

“We are working in concert with the university and the city of Athens to improve broadband access,” said Eliason. “(We are also) exploring the use of a land bank to improve the housing stock. (And) the Port Authority is looking at development of a new industrial park.”

He noted that the “distressed” classification and the numbers behind it may be misleading.

“The use of the national data is difficult because of the effect of the (Ohio University and Hocking College) student population (in the city and county) on economic indicators,” Eliason said. “Look at previous years we were ‘distressed.’ I think the move up was a blip on the radar.”

“It’s a very complex issue that has many influencing factors,” said Sara Marrs-Maxfield, executive director of the Athens County Economic Development Council. “But, we recently engaged in an effort to do a comprehensive analysis and identify strategies to move the needle in a positive direction.”

In support of that, Marrs-Maxfield pointed to a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategic Plan, a 60-page document prepared by the Montrose Group and presented to Economic Development Council in January.

“It provides a lot of data, and a good outline of the effort the ACEDC is leading to address some of the weaknesses and threats to our economic health,” Marrs-Maxfield said.

The plan’s goal: “Within five years, Athens County should add 2,500 new jobs, cut the poverty rate for children by five points, and increase the per-capita income by 15 percent to get closer to the national average.”

And the plan lists four stated objectives: “Athens County should retain all its major private-sector employers, attract 10 new employers with over 25 new jobs each, develop five new sites prepared for the location of multiple office and industrial companies, and develop an Athens Community Fund to grow small businesses.”

The Appalachian Regional Commission may not be around much longer to help. The President Trump administration has proposed it be eliminated.

However, the Buckeye Hills Regional Council is working “to advocate for the continuation of the ARC program at the federal level,” Allphin said.

If that happens, the ARC could continue with its own strategic plan, which includes goals of “investing in entrepreneurial and business development strategies that strengthen Appalachia’s economy,” and “improving the education, knowledge, skills, and health of residents to work and succeed in Appalachia.”

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