Rupp Furniture is closing its Bryan store, which has been downtown for about 40 years, and consolidating inventory to its original Archbold location. The shift is not about the economy; all three partners are close to retirement age.
BRYAN — Art Goodside was two weeks shy of his 30-year anniversary at the Fleetwood travel trailer factory in Edgerton when he was one of hundreds laid off in 2009.
Mr. Goodside, 57, of Montpelier, spent two years job hunting and drawing unemployment until that ran out. For the last four years, he’s been employed at the Bryan Walmart Supercenter doing custodial work, a job that brings in roughly half of what he was making before.
His story is like tens of thousands of others in Ohio.
Despite a recovery in some job sectors, wages in northwest Ohio continue to decline. In Williams County, one of the hardest hit in the state, some residents feel left behind by companies sending jobs elsewhere and politicians focused on urban areas.
In the county — hugging the Indiana and Michigan borders — median household income has decreased 14 percent, or nearly $7,000, from 2005 to 2014 when adjusted for 2014 dollars.
The county ranks third worst in the state in the percentage drop of median household income in that time period. The county is at the absolute bottom when going back further; median household income fell 26.7 percent, or more than $15,000, from 1999 to 2014.
Some Williams County residents say the high-wage jobs that used to exist are a thing of the past. It’s been tough, and tough for a long time.
Fleetwood was one of the better-paying gigs at the time, Mr. Goodside said. In addition to the nearly $13 per hour wage, there were production bonuses and ample opportunities for overtime. It wasn’t unusual to pull in $600 to $800 a week, he said.
No more. When the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009, few people had access to credit to buy the recreational vehicles that the factory made, Mr. Goodside said.
After getting laid off, he almost lost his home. He avoided that by having an elderly aunt move in with him. She contributes limited Social Security benefits. The cuts mean no more vacations — not that there were many before — and limiting small luxuries such as going out to eat.
“Basically you’ve cut out anything that you don’t really need, you just learn to be a little more austere,” he said. As someone in his late 50s who did not attend college, Mr. Goodside said he has “to be realistic” about the job outlook.
“There aren’t too many assembly lines of factories hiring people in my age group,” he said.
Mr. Goodside joined a recent lunchtime crowd at Welcome Home Family Dining in Bryan, located in the town center. Terry Muehlfeld, who was working behind the counter, said job cuts have hurt downtown retail, citing the closing of several shops.
“Retail follows [jobs], and if you don’t have your factories, you don’t have the retail because you don’t have the people coming out of the factories to spend that paycheck,” she said.
And, added Bill Retcher, 73, a semiretired former truck driver who now works for an auction company, a shift in available jobs changes people’s spending habits.
“They don’t make the money like they used to, and then they go to the big Walmarts or drive to Toledo — the bargains,” he said.
Rupp Furniture, located down the street from the diner, is in the process of closing its Bryan location, a storefront that has been downtown for about 40 years, and consolidating inventory to its original Archbold location.
Phil Rupp, one of three partners in the business, said the consolidation is less about the economy and more about practicality, as all partners are getting closer to retirement age. The company owns the building, and Mr. Rupp said they are hopeful to have the space filled soon with another business.
But residents like Ms. Muehlfeld lament losing the long-standing retail anchor regardless of the reason.
Bryan Mayor Doug Johnson said the city is working to make the area more attractive to potential businesses. In 2014, the city purchased an 80-acre stretch of land on the north side of town for a little more than $777,000, paid for by Bryan Municipal Utilities. Mr. Johnson said they are in the process of getting the plots “shovel ready,” with municipal electric, water, communications, sanitary, and storm sewers for future employers looking to build industrial facilities there.
The city is also working with nearby Northwest State Community College to encourage local students to enroll in programs that train for skilled positions in the area’s industrial economy, he said.
Williams County Commissioner Brian Davis said rural communities suffer when industrial jobs disappear, though he rejected the idea that this is a “new normal.”
“State government tends to provide funding and opportunities to large metro areas because there are more people there accessing the projects that they are funding,” he said. “But we don’t sit around talking about how Cleveland or Columbus got something we didn’t get. It’s counterproductive.”
Instead, he said, officials in the county must work with the state to create incentives and favorable tax policies to attract businesses.
“It’s unfortunate, but it’s the sign of the times; we have to make a paradigm shift in our nation,” he said. “We have to look at how we treat corporations compared to other countries to see if we want to be a manufacturing country again and if we want to be competitive.”
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