Three years ago, Canton’s unemployment rate was fifteen percent, five points higher than the national average. Today, the city’s jobless rate has been cut in half to seven percent. Part of the reason is the oil and gas industry has brought some highly skilled career opportunities to the area. Ideastream’s Michelle Kanu tells us how Ohio’s drilling activity is helping stimulate an economic revival in the Canton area.
Before William Healy started his first term as mayor of Canton in 2007, the city was in a slump.
Healy: “There was a lot of blight and empty buildings, and there were no people. And in fact, when I first ran for office, one of the ideas I had for a commercial was to stand at the square downtown, have a commercial filmed, and while I was standing there have a tumble weed roll by because there wasn’t a single person or a single vehicle all around us.”
Economic decline and recession hit Canton hard, with the demise of LTV Steel, the closing of Hoover’s manufacturing facilities, and the exodus of retailers to the suburbs.
But these days, when Healy takes in the view from his office window, he says the landscape is different.
Healy: “Now, we’ve got a vibrant community. We’ve got activity at night. We’ve got first Friday events on Friday nights that bring thousands of people here….”
Healy says several things helped fuel this turnaround. The city has invested nearly $200 million in improving its infrastructure. It’s lured new information technology companies like VXI Global Solutions and Agile Networks to the area with tax abatements.
And the city has also taken a welcoming stance toward the oil and gas industry.
Healy says he decided to court energy giant Chesapeake at a time when public opinion was mounting against oil and gas – and particularly fracking—the process used to extract natural gas.
Once Chesapeake set up offices downtown, Healy seized the chance to market Canton’s proximity to the drilling activity with a slogan and a graphic.
Healy: “I worked with the chamber and some local marketers and we came up with the design and logo. And we trademarked it, and I announced it at my state of the city that we wanted to be the Utica Capital and welcome the industry to our community.”
Since that announcement, Healy says the city’s fracking friendly attitude has attracted some 40 new businesses directly related to oil and gas to the area. And their presence is starting to revive downtown.
Rodriguez: “We’re right now alongside city hall and 3rd Street SW. We’re going to go two blocks down ….”
Rafael Rodriguez shows me around, pointing out some building construction as we walk. As business manager with the Canton Community Improvement Corporation, Rodriguez connects companies with open facilities. He says 12 engineering companies have set up shop in the area in the last 18 months alone.
Rodriguez: “A lot of these engineering companies that have come here for this stuff actually are benefiting from some of the other work that’s going on in the area because they’re not just working with the oil and gas, they have their people out there looking for opportunities to work with some of the infrastructure projects that are going on anyway.”
Vince Paparella, Vice President of Dawood Engineering, says the company plans to get involved in some of the local infrastructure projects next and is hoping to stay rooted in Canton. Paparella says Dawood is hiring six new surveyors, but good workers are harder to come by.
Paparella: “When we first started, the availability of skilled employees was pretty high. We’re seeing now that the competition for getting employees is getting pretty extreme. It’s a positive and a negative obviously. Good that the local people are getting employed, but it also makes it tougher for us to find qualified people.”
The influx of engineering firms competing for workers is a welcome challenge for Canton, says Dave Kaminski. He’s the director of energy at the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Kaminski: “We had no clear and obvious engine of economic growth operating here. I think that the oil and gas industry is providing that clear and obvious engine of economic growth and activity.”
But how long will that engine keep running?
Hill: “We don’t know how long it’s going to last, but it’s going to be long.”
Ned Hill is the Dean of the College of Urban affairs at Cleveland State University. He says it’s still really early in Ohio’s shale drilling activity for cities to see a big boost in jobs, or to bank on that activity driving their economy for the long haul. But he says having oil companies set up regional offices in the city helps.
Hill: “The more that you’ve got the accounting function, the back office function, and the lease office management and all of that here, the longer the development’s going to be, the higher the development’s going to be.”
Back at his Canton office, Mayor Healy admits that his city’s turnaround is still a work in progress.
Healy: “We still have two buildings over here that are under renovation… This building is about half full, and these are still big office buildings that need tenants.”
Healy says he hopes to attract a wider variety of businesses to fill those vacancies, not just those in the oil and gas industry.