The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

June 25, 2008

Bad vibes: Lack of opportunities, progress make for sour attitudes

By CARL E. FEATHER - Lifestyle Editor - cfeather@starbeacon.com

Eavesdrop on conversations at the lunch counter, in the aisles of Wal-Mart on a Friday evening or around the sports bar on a Sunday afternoon, and you’re likely to hear some pretty disparaging remarks about the old hometown.

Bashing Ashtabula County and its institutions is a favorite community pastime, perhaps exceeded only by the city’s passion for high school sports and following favorite bickering politicians. Young people like to bash the community’s lack of entertainment and shopping experiences, young adults criticize the community’s lack of opportunities and jobs, and those over 40 engage in bashing the media, political leaders and pothole-rich roads. City council members bash each other and school board members. Back and forth it goes, and year after year, the county under-achieves its potential.

“There’s no doubt about it: We have been down so long; there are far too many people here who think we cannot rise again,” says Steve Sargent, executive director of the Samaritan House homeless shelter and a board member of several city and county-wide nonprofit organizations.

Sargent feels our attitudes about ourselves and community stems from a chronic lack of hope and paucity of innovative leadership with vision. And it’s an attitude that’s showing.

“I have found as I walk around in other counties and other states, that I see people walking with their heads up,” says Ron Clutter, entrepreneur and owner of Nordic Air in Harpersfield Township. “I walk in Ashtabula County, and I see a lot of heads down. I think we lack pride in ourselves; I think we lack vision. I certainly think we lean more toward this idea of entitlement, that (the) government owes me a living.”

Jim Timonere, Ashtabula Area Chamber of Commerce president, says he’s had visitors come into his office and tell them it was the first place they’ve heard locals say anything good about the area.

“We can be our biggest cheerleader or worst enemy,” he says.



Help, I’ve fallen and ...

Susan Stocker, dean of Kent State University-Ashtabula campus, says the attitude she encounters most often in the county is one of “helplessness.”

“It is not just related to education,” she says. “On the other boards I serve on, it’s reflected in other sectors: health care, business. There is a sense, a kind of culture, that we don’t deserve something better.”

Even in unguarded, off-the-record moments, public-sector leadership officials have been known to make comments resigned to the idea things are just the way they are because, after all, this is Ashtabula County, and it will never change. Generations of entitlement dependency have created a culture that thrives on negativity and status quo, at least in the minds of many who live here.

But what do those who don’t live in the county think of us? Stocker, who meets with faculty and leadership from other Kent State branches and the main campus, says one perception is “Snow Belt.”

“After you get past the jokes about snow, they really don’t know a whole lot about Ashtabula County. They understand it as being rural and depressed. On the flip side, people also are starting to learn about our wineries, lake and tourism.”

Unfortunately, even with all the county’s quality-of-life amenities, KSUA faculty members who live outside the county prefer to commute, due in part to the dearth of cultural attractions in the county, says Stocker.

Sandy King is a guest-service representative for the Geneva State Park Lodge and Conference Center. She welcomes guests to the lodge from all over the state, nation and world.

“They are overwhelmingly positive,” King says. “One of my biggest frustrations is that people are not aware of how positively we are viewed from those who come here from all over the world. They really are positive about not only this facility, but also the general area. They think Geneva-on-the-Lake is charming and quaint, kind of a time warp. They love the lake and the wineries.”

Clutter has contact with educators, other business people and professionals across the state. “On the one hand, outsiders perceive us as ‘hicks’ and behind the other areas,” Clutter says.

The most telling outside perception that Clutter notices, however, is one of opportunity and resources ignored and squandered. He says most counties would be thrilled to have just one of Ashtabula County’s natural resources: the scenic rivers, the lake, wineries, orchards, natural areas or covered bridges. Yet we have all these and still can’t find the spark to make it come together for economic prosperity.

“They say, ‘It’s a great area up there; they don’t know what they got,’” Clutter says.

Regional cheerleading organizations like Team NEO and the Cleveland Plus campaign, are attempting to brand the entire region to outsiders and create a positive view of it. Locally, LEADERSHIPAshtabula strives to educate business and professional people about the county and its many resources. Growth Partnership for Ashtabula exists to retain jobs and attract new industries to the county.



City cries despair

Despite these innovations, there remains an undertow of negativity, perhaps even a curse, that some residents attribute to the 1876 train disaster, which put the city on the national map in a negative way. In the latter-half of the 20th century, the city was cursed with its Rust Belt association and high Superfund-site census. Last year, when national media turned its attention to Ashtabula as a result of the National Championship Game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the University of Florida Gators, visiting writers cast the city in uncomplimentary terms, making note of its low median household income and high poverty rate, painting its empty buildings and rutted roads as stereotypical Rust Belt. Urbandictionary.com has a most uncomplimentary description of “Trashtabula,” which includes the advice: “Run this stoplight, Dude. There is no way we are stopping this car in Trashtabula.”

Just two weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette featured Ashtabula City on the front page of its Sunday edition under the headline “Ashtabula: A city that cries despair.” Written by Dennis B. Roddy, the story points out the city’s grim demographic figures and quotes Jason Strong, the city’s director of community development, as saying “Basically, we need someone to rescue us.”

Old attitudes are hard to break.

Some community leaders contacted for this story feel the most devastating attitude present in the county stems from the fact that many county residents simply have not accepted the fact the world has changed. This is no longer the Ashtabula County of the 1950s and ’60s, when a person did not need a college education to get a job and, if the morning’s job didn’t work out, a laborer could walk down the street to the next factory and get another job after lunch. The world has changed dramatically, even as many residents still wait for True Temper, Bow Socket and Reliance Electric to reopen their doors.

Businesses that have survived these decades of vicissitude have done so largely by eliminating competition, which has also reduced opportunity, innovation and progress in those sectors. When that survival is threatened through progressive ideas, evolution or direct competition, there is a fear of losing one’s place and livelihood in the community. Anthony Cantagallo, Ashtabula city manager, compares it to the “I will lose my rice bowl” mentality of the Chinese peasant. This has led to blocks of “good old boys” who watch out for each others’ interests while ignoring the overall good of the community.

Additionally, Cantagallo says leadership in the city and many parts of the county has been marked by re-active rather than pro-active spirit.

“As a populace, we are more concerned about where we are going to put our schools than how they are going to educate our children,” Cantagallo says.