finds its way
grapples with change
By James McNair
The Cincinnati Enquirer
It's Sunday-morning quiet downtown on Main Street.
Stoplights change for cars nowhere in sight. The Sorg Paper
mill, shut more than a year ago, stands solemnly like a
penitentiary wall at the west edge of town. Ben Ligon's 76
Service is servicing nothing.
What makes the scene so
contradictory is that this is a Friday, not a Sunday. Banks,
government offices and stores are open. But the real Main
Street, with businesses teeming with customers, is 10 miles
away at the city's lone link to Interstate 75.
Mr. Ligon, a wiry 66, doesn't seem to
mind the lulls between doing oil changes. The gas pumps are
long gone, and his two bays are empty, as is the Snack-Rite
machine inside the propped-open front door. Still, Mr. Ligon
stays open from 8 to 5 and works Saturdays.
It's just something to get
away from home, he shrugged.
Many cities and towns share the
dilemma of stagnant downtowns and suburban flight. Middletown,
though, has a more fundamental problem at its doorstep: Trying
to make itself over as a diversified business center after a
century of dependence on steel and paper.
The effort stems partly from
the recognition that Middletown, perched squarely between
Cincinnati and Dayton, has a future as a regional business hub
and commuter haven. But there's another factor beyond the
city's control: The continuing unraveling of its primordial
In May 2000, Sorg Paper called
an end to a 148-year run and laid off its last 200 employees.
Square D, an electrical devices maker, is dislodging 250
workers through the phased shutdown of its 101-year-old
Middletown operations. And AK Steel the successor to
Middletown's longtime corporate benefactor, Armco has said
that a slumping steel market and new environmental-compliance
mandates could force it to halt raw steel production and
eliminate 2,000 local jobs.
The upheaval in manufacturing
goes back several decades and has made Middletown less
self-contained and less certain of its identity. More and
more, natives are going elsewhere for work.
The aim of most of my
classmates in 1951 was to get a car and get a job at Armco,
said City Council member Fred Sennet. But today, it's tough
to keep a kid in town because there are fewer jobs in the
steel mills and paper mills. It's tough to keep his parents in
To this day, the city of 51,000
owes its economic vibrancy to steel, paper, airplane parts and
other assembly-line industries. AK Steel, Middletown's biggest
employer with 4,000 local workers, is the steel industry's
most profitable producer. More than a dozen factories chug
away in the unglitzy business of making corrugated boxes,
industrial toilet paper and other paper goods.
There are a lot of businesses
in Middletown that don't get a lot of play, said Larry W
If there's anything
wrong with being a factory town in 2001, it isn't readily
The unemployment rate for the
Hamilton-Middletown market was a nearly invisible 3.3 percent
in August, a big improvement over the 7 percent of 1993. Plant
workers at AK Steel earn an average of $60,000 a year. AK's
Web site advertises jobs starting at $45,000 with all the
benefits one would expect of a Fortune 500 company.
Middletown has come a long way
in toning down its blue-collar image. With its borders now
stretching to I-75 and into Warren County, the economy
includes a greater base of retailing, service industries and
As of August, 16.7 percent of
Middletown-Hamilton's nonagricultural work force toiled in
manufacturing, down from 20 percent in 1993, according to the
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time,
manufacturing accounted for 18.6 percent of the state's work
force, 19.1 percent of Dayton-Springfield's. Cincinnati was at
City income tax collections
also shed light on the shift away from manufacturing. Business
and industry contributed 7 percent of income tax receipts in
2000, down from 11.6 percent in 1989. The rest comes from
individuals and sole proprietorships.
Andy Haney, president of Local
2258 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers,
said the Square D closing will send even more residents out of
town for work.
I would say that's going to
happen because Middletown is not really that big a place, Mr.
Haney said. Other than AK Steel, it's going to be hard to
find a job in town right now with the kind of wages and
benefits we make here.
Hourly workers at Square D earn
an average of $35,000 to $40,000 a year, he said, and about
three quarters of them live in the city. For every worker who
finds employment where the local income tax rate is the same
or higher, Middletown will lose a trickle of revenue.
to the east and I-75, meantime, has essentially created two
Middletowns, one with the factories and dormant downtown, the
other with the mall, restaurants and middle-class
subdivisions. The differences will be even more pronounced in
a matter of years.
Both Bishop Fenwick High School
and Middletown Regional Hospital plan to relocate toward the
I-75 corridor. The moves would boost Fenwick's draw as a
regional school and enhance the 310-bed hospital's ability to
serve a broader market.
The population outside of
Middletown proper has been growing at double-digit rates,
said Larry James, vice president and chief marketing officer
for Middletown Regional Health Systems. We want to make
ourselves more accessible as possible to patients from those
With the hospital alone
spending $125 million and moving 1,500 employees, the city
aims to move in lock step. Plans call for the annexation of
nearly 400 acres near I-75, including what would become the
hospital and Fenwick sites.
Somehow, downtown boosters are
Central Avenue, the town's
historic shopping venue, is being disinterred from a mall
structure that entombed the street in 1973. A commercial
disappointment, the City Centre mall wound up costing the city
$500,000 a year to heat and cool. The price tag to renovate
the four-block downtown sector: $13 million.
Earl Back, a retired iron
worker who has lived 60 years in Middletown, is skeptical that
downtown will ever amount to much. So is Mr. Ligon, the
service-station owner. To him, the abandoned Sorg Paper plant
is a huge liability.
They need to tear it down and
put a casino in there, Mr. Ligon said.
Like many Rust Belt
burgs, Middletown is learning how to wean itself of old,
For about a century, the city
practically owed its existence to the factories who employed
its ablest men and created a flotilla of local contractors and
Paul Sorg, one of the richest
men in America in the late 1800s, was Middletown's biggest
employer and benefactor as the owner of a tobacco plant, the
paper mill and a hotel. He also built the city's opera house,
where locals can treat themselves to classics such as Babes
in Toyland and Bizet's Carmen. Sorg's 35-room
Romanesque mansion still anchors a row of elegant Victorian
George Verity took it to the
next level. His American Rolling Mill Co. began steel-making
operations in 1901 and made the city a nucleus of world trade.
Armco helped bankroll the construction of public buildings,
schools, parks, swimming pools and community centers. It
sponsored countless events and civic initiatives.
In 1961, Armco employed more
than 50,000 people in 139 countries. In Middletown, its
payroll approached 8,000. To many generations, it was said,
Middletown was Armco.
You name anything in town, and
Armco and its employees had something to do with it, said Mr.
Sennet, the city councilman. You wanted to get a school levy
passed, they'd get the troops out. They built the Armco
Recreation Center in the south end of town. They had a hand in
expanding the hospital. They sat on boards. Every group that
was worth anything in town was created by Armco.
Today, the relationship between
the city and the company is more arm's length.
Through a series of ownership
changes, Armco became AK Steel. Maintaining an active
philanthropy, AK accounts for about $500,000 in corporate and
employee United Way giving every year and it pledged $500,000
to Middletown Regional Hospital last year for a cardiac
emergency room. It threw a 100th anniversary party for 40,000
people last year. It committed $250,000 toward the
construction of soccer fields and other facilities at Jacot
leadership and profitability and pleasing shareholders are
what make AK tick.
We recognize as the largest
employer in town that we play an important role in the
economic engine of the area, said AK spokesman Alan McCoy.
We choose to play an appropriate role in civic direction.
We're involved, but not hired to drive. We don't intend to run
this town; we intend to run this company.
AK Steel also operates in a
much different regulatory environment than Armco did.
A year ago, the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency filed suit against AK Steel,
accusing it of air, water and solid-waste pollution. It didn't
come as news to residents of the Oneida neighborhood on AK's
southern perimeter. They say soot from AK smokestacks coats
their cars and homes. Not only that, they say, it stinks.
The siding on my home is
practically ruined, said Raymond Agee, a retiree who lives on
Navaho Street. "I've taken to washing it by hand with an SOS
pad. You can't just take a hose and wash it off. I was raised
in this neighborhood, and it was never this bad.
Clark Thompson, whose house on
Seneca Street is less than a mile from the nearest AK mill,
said he wears a respirator when he mows his lawn or blows
leaves. He said his air-conditioning intake filters are black.
Basically, if you live in or
around AK you expect some odors, some minor fallout or soot,
but it's clearly gotten increasingly unbearable in the past
five years, said Mr. Thompson, general manager of a specialty
machine company in Middletown. People in Middletown realize
that AK Steel is vital and don't want it to suffer, but they
have to be held accountable.
AK asserts that, if anything,
it has eliminated emissions substantially over the years. If
the court sides with the EPA, the company could have to pay
million of dollars in fines. Either way, the government is
getting stricter in governing steel mill pollution, and AK
Steel is looking at spending $80 million to comply.
Mr. Wood, of the Middletown
Economic Development Corp., said he knows of no instances of
companies spurning Middletown because of foul air. Still, in
the organization's promotional brochure, little mention is
made of the town's lifeline from steel. The brochure contains
not a single picture of the sprawling AK Steel plant.
It also sidesteps the city's
underperforming public schools and nagging crime rate.
According to the Ohio
Department of Education, Middletown schools failed to reach
the bar on 17 of the state's 27 performance standards in the
1999-2000 school year, mostly proficiency test scores.
Meanwhile, FBI statistics show the city racked up 64.3 serious
crimes per 1,000 residents in 1999, or 50 percent higher than
the urban Ohio and national average, yet lower than Hamilton's
78.3 per 1,000 and Dayton's 95.1 per 1,000.
But city elders
believe Middletown's fortunes are on the upswing. Sam
Ashworth, executive director of the Middletown Historical
Society, said he would like to see the city use its industrial
heritage as a springboard to the future.
"I think and I hope that
the future brings some higher-tech sort of organizations to
the area, Mr. Ashworth said. I can see that happening with
Butler County and I do think that Middletown is in a good
position for that.
Seizing on the city's
geography, Mr. Wood has resorted to pillaging companies from
Cincinnati and Dayton. His agency's radio spots, touting
Middletown as the heart of Southwest Ohio, beckon on
stations in those cities.
We're sitting in the middle of
2.8 million people, and there are businesses that can
strategically serve their customers better from here, Mr.
Several companies have made the
move, he said. One was Terminix International, which closed
offices in Cincinnati and Dayton and consolidated its 60
employees in Middletown, said branch manager David Joles. The
company provides commercial pest control in a 120-mile area
from Northern Kentucky to Wapakoneta, Ohio.
Home buyers are
buying into the concept, too. Along I-75 on Middletown's
amoeba-like eastern edge, subdivisions are springing up on
what used to be farmland. Homes priced at $200,000 are
marketed to urban professionals who want more space.
Middletown's greatest asset is
its location, said John Sawyer, a home builder and owner of
Sawyer Realtors in Middletown. The wife might work in Dayton
and the husband in Cincinnati. You can be in Fountain Square
in 40 minutes from Middletown, easy.
New residents might be
surprised by the amenities of their new home. Middletown has a
symphony orchestra and a fine arts center, a championship golf
course and a branch campus of Miami University. On the first
weekend of October, it again hosted its Middfest
International, a celebration of the culture and food of a
different country every year, this time that of Greece.
There are still people in
Cincinnati and Dayton who perceive us as being a grimy and
industrial town, Mr. Sawyer said. It isn't.
Middletown finds its way
and Span could sparkle again
businesses seek disaster loans
up your data online