Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Negative buzz from candidates could hurt region



By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Ohio: the Job Loss State.

That's the message being broadcast to business executives by the state's high-profile role in the presidential campaign, some economic development officials worry.

WHAT THEY SAY
Foreign news reports on Ohio and its job losses:

"Earlier this year, Democrats had been confident that voter anger over Ohio's slumping economy would help swing voters toward (Sen. John) Kerry. Ohio has lost 230,000 jobs, including 150,000 in the manufacturing sector, during Bush's tenure.
"The state suffered another black eye last month when the U.S. Census Bureau reported that Cleveland, a city of 480,000 hit hard by the steel industry layoffs, had become the poorest major city in America."
- The Edmonton, Alberta, Journal, Sept. 26.
--
"If economic self-interest was the only element determining voting choices, Kerry and the Democrats should win (swing voter Jenelle Wright's) vote and those of many other undecided voters in Ohio, a Rust Belt state which has lost 200,000 jobs since 2001."
- The Vancouver, British Columbia, Sun, Sept. 25.
--
"John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, yesterday seized on the figures as evidence of the administration's failure to create jobs.
'There's no better evidence of George Bush's wrong choices than Ohio's economy, which saw more job losses than any other state last month,' he said."
- The Financial Times (London), Sept. 18.
--
"Over the weekend, I spent a morning on the road with two Republican activists affectionately known as 'Old Lion' and 'Young Tiger' in the Ohio town of Springfield. This is the archetypal Midwestern 'swing' town where the election supposedly will be decided. The local factory has shed thousands of jobs. Health care costs are spiraling. Times are hard. And yet, as the morning wore on, my companions - John Tower, a courtly 75-year-old Texan canvasser, and his pimply 15-year-old sidekick, Bradley Minerd - became increasingly upbeat."
- The Daily Telegraph (London), Sept. 9.
--
"Mr. Bush narrowly carried (Ohio) in 2000, but Democrats believe and hope that heavy job losses in the state's manufacturing sector could tip the balance of power to Mr. Kerry."
- Belfast (Northern Ireland) Telegraph, Sept. 4.

Virtually every day, John Kerry's campaign or its allies blare the fact that Ohio has lost more than 200,000 jobs over the past four years. President Bush's campaign says Ohio's economy had been hurting but is recovering.

The statistics aren't in dispute. The repercussions are.

"The concern is, it's almost become a cliche now - Ohio, Rust Belt State," said Linda Siefkas, senior vice president for business advocacy at the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce.

That makes Ohio less appealing to business leaders who are thinking of new places to set up shop, she said.

Ohio's regions are so diverse - with Cincinnati far different from, say, Youngstown - that the campaigning sends an incomplete image.

For example, of Ohio's 12 metro areas, only Cincinnati, Columbus and Lima gained jobs in August from a year ago. Dayton-Springfield lost 6,400 jobs, Cleveland lost 1,200 and Butler County lost 800 jobs.

Statewide unemployment in August was 6.3 percent, above the national rate of 5.4 percent.

"In the short term, I'm sure that the Chamber of Commerce has a point. Fundamentally, it creates some negative buzz," said Shawn Mummert, a software developer and board president of Cincinnati Tomorrow, an organization that works to attract young professionals.

But in the long term, he said, the focus on Ohio's economic problems will only help. He hopes the problems will get special attention from whichever candidate wins in November.

Besides, he said, Cincinnati suffers more from its image as an intolerant, culturally deprived backwater than from anything the presidential candidates are saying.

Another story to tell

The state's development director, Bruce Johnson, said images of shuttered factories and job-loss statistics are "reinforcing older images about our state."

"We think there's a whole other story to tell," he said.

Gov. Bob Taft is telling that story this week on a trade mission to Japan and Taiwan with 71 representatives from 59 Ohio companies.

While the occasional image of a smokestack might send an outdated message, overall, the campaign's focus on Ohio's economy probably is good for the state, Johnson said.

"All over the world, they're hearing 'Ohio, swing state, the president cares; the presidential candidates are there all the time,' " he said. He doubted any company would think twice about relocating to Ohio because of what they've heard during the campaign.

Business relocation consultant James Holmes said the spotlight on job loss probably wouldn't influence his suggestions on where to move a company, but it might influence a chief executive's short list of sites.

"From the perspective of doing business, it gives you the gut feeling there must be a reason businesses are leaving," said Holmes, president of Paradise Communications in Danville, Calif.

Maybe chief executives will assume taxes are too high or unions too militant, he said.

He pointed out that Kentucky has been luring companies from Ohio, a migration that creates its own momentum. Anyone who reads a newspaper or watches TV knows Ohio has been hemorrhaging jobs, he said.

But local chamber of commerce officials say they don't think hammering on Ohio's job losses will influence any companies. Overall, the attention on Ohio and Cincinnati has been a plus.

"It's always great to be loved," said Nick Vehr, the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce's vice president of economic development. "We've welcomed the debate, the discussion, the attention and the fact that any national candidate with a beating heart knows exactly where we are."

And reality is reality, said Nick Spencer, founder of Cincinnati Tomorrow. Ohio and Cincinnati are losing jobs and people, respectively. Rhetoric from the presidential candidates is not the problem.

"They're not diverse, open environments to do business in," he said of Cincinnati and the Buckeye State. "Ohio is still lagging behind the innovation economy."

Influx of campaigners

No one locally has measured the impact on Cincinnati's economy of all the campaign stops, said Julie Harrison Calvert, spokeswoman for the Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau.

One of the campaign's benefits has been the influx of an army of young people. They include Shayna Strom of Penn Valley, Pa., who moved to Cincinnati in June to help the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, better known as ACORN, register voters.

"I've had to buy a lot of things like pots and pans. I go out to restaurants," said Strom, 24, who is living with a friend in Kenwood.

Outside of that, she said, she probably hasn't had much economic impact.

"I don't make very much money," Strom said.

Email cweiser@gannett.com




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