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Published: Friday, 4/9/2004

Northwest Ohio's population stagnates - but not Findlay's

BY MIKE WILKINSON
BLADE STAFF WRITER

As Toledo struggles to awaken from a long economic slumber, the folks in Findlay are almost giddy.

They have new employers who have attracted new residents, while the local community college mounts its largest capital project ever. An Olive Garden restaurant is planned and they're anticipating a Target store as growth continues along the city's I-75/U.S. 23 corridor.

"We are a perfectly situated community to experience sustained growth," said Doug Peters, president and CEO of the Findlay-Hancock County Chamber of Commerce.

That makes things a lot easier for Realtor Jo Daugherty.

"It's a great place to raise kids," Ms. Daugherty said. "It's safe and clean and prosperous."

Census figures released this week show an increase of more than 3,500 people to the populations of Hancock County and its northern neighbor, Wood County, between the 2000 Census and last year.

On the whole, however, the figures confirm what many already know - northwest Ohio continues to suffer from little to no growth. Despite the good news in Hancock and Wood counties, the 18-county region collectively gained only 81 people in the Census bureau's annual estimate of population based on birth and death rates as well as migration patterns.

Across the state line, however, population totals for Monroe, Lenawee, and Hillsdale counties in southeast Michigan are up more than 7,000 people, including about 4,700 people in Monroe County alone.

Unlike the official head count done every 10 years, yesterday's Census data is only an estimate. But local officials acknowledge that there's no reason not to believe the numbers, which affirm a trend that's been in place for decades.

"[The numbers] are pretty consistent with what's gone on," said Dave Gedeon, manager of growth strategies for the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments.

As cities like Toledo age, people who can move are opting for new homes in the suburbs. Many people believe that the suburbs are safer, have better schools, and offer better opportunities, he said.

Although he believes that may be more myth than reality, Mr. Gedeon has found that convincing people otherwise is another matter. "It's not an impossible task," he said. "But it's one of the more challenging ones you're going to find."

That perception has helped fuel above-average growth in Monroe County, which is gaining people in three key areas: in the northeast, where people from Detroit and Wayne County are moving; in Bedford Township and the southern portion of the county, where Toledoans continue to migrate; and in Dundee, which has a Cabela's outdoors megastore and plans for a $400 million automotive plant to be built by DaimlerChrysler AG and two partners.

The store and the plant, which will create 400 jobs, have helped result in plans for an estimated 3,200 new homes near U.S. 23 at M-50.

"I know where a few of them are," Bob Black, superintendent of Dundee schools, said of the additional 4,700 Monroe County residents.

Since the fall of 1999, the district's enrollment has steadily increased from 1,500 students to a current total of roughly 1,620. The district has been able to accommodate the increase with portable classrooms and by building a $30 million high school that opened at the start of this school year.

But predicting the future will take some skill and luck. Will the new $240,000 homes bring elementary pupils? High schoolers? Or no one?

"It's like shooting at a moving target while you're standing on a conveyor belt," Mr. Black said.

Findlay and Hancock County have been among the leaders in Ohio in terms of economic development for a number of years. Mr. Peters said the county's location on I-75 and U.S. 23 and its proximity to U.S. 30 have helped. And public officials have worked with private industry to expand the local economy.

That's part of the reason Owens Community College elected to more than double its Findlay campus. Work is underway on a $17.7 million construction project there that includes a 120,000-square foot building for classes.

The campus has grown exponentially since it opened in 1983 with 201 students. It now serves an estimated 5,500 students, with plans to grow to 7,500 in three years, said Gary Dettling, vice president of college advancement.

Owens is reacting in part to demand in the Findlay area from students who want to improve their skills to match the local market. Among the hot classes: tool & die, fluid power, and electronics.

"A lot of people are now constantly retooling themselves for the job market," Mr. Dettling said. Hancock County, he added, has consistently had a far lower unemployment rate than the rest of the region, the state, and the country.

"The economic conditions seem to be very, very favorable," Mr. Dettling said.

Ohio as a whole fared worse than most of the nation in the latest Census estimates. But two Ohio counties, Delaware and Warren, made the top 100 in the country for growth. Delaware County, just north of Columbus in Franklin County, had the 16th highest growth between 2000 and 2003, gaining 20.7 percent.

If Lucas County experienced the same type of growth as Delaware County, it would have added more than 94,000 people - equal to adding six cities the size of Maumee.

But Lucas County's population actually declined.

If it had just hit the state average - a pedestrian 0.7 percent growth rate - the county would have gained 3,200 residents instead of losing 800.

Mr. Gedeon said population gains aren't always a sign of success. A community can still improve without additional people.

"Stagnating or declining population doesn't necessarily spell doom and gloom," he insisted. Toledo is working on creating an atmosphere for growth, he said, pointing to the condominiums going up in the city's Warehouse District near Fifth Third Field.

In Findlay, though, Jo Daugherty can point to the entire county. "We're growing," she said. "It's amazing."

Contact Mike Wilkinson at

mwilkinson@theblade.com

or at 419-724-6104.



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