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Published: Thursday, 1/31/2008

Region's development predicted to stay stunted

The region's economy is unlikely to improve this year as the subprime housing mess piles on top of a further slowdown in the auto industry, according to federal, state, and local officials speaking yesterday at the sixth annual State of the Region conference.

"Manufacturing is robust. What's problematic is manufacturing employment," said Robert Sawyer, the director of the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration regional office in Chicago.

He sought to dispel what he called the misperception that the region's and the nation's loss of manufacturing jobs was a case of workers being displaced by lower-paid counterparts in places like Mexico and China.

"Most of the factory jobs that have been lost have been lost to technology improvements," he said.

About 300 business, government, and development leaders attended the conference in Perrysburg, sponsored by Bowling Green State University's Center for Regional Development.

Mr. Sawyer, who is not an economist, praised northwest Ohio for successfully working to diversify its economy.

"We're not the Rust Belt by any means," he said. Toledo's development of its once robust glass industry into one that concentrates on solar panels "is a model for what much of the Midwest can do."

He suggested that decades of population declines in the Midwest may get turned around soon by climate change.

"I think a lot of the people who fled the Midwest are going to make a U-turn and come back because water's becoming a bigger issue," Mr. Sawyer said. "I've had anecdotal evidence of people considering investing in the Southwest who have changed their mind because of the [scarcity] of water."

Also, Dawn Larzelere, of the Ohio Housing Finance Agency, told the group the rapid increase in foreclosures across the state will continue despite efforts to help those caught in adjustable rate mortgages that they cannot afford, and because of job losses from a slowing economy.

"Until those industrial sectors start to improve, northwest Ohio's housing economy is going to continue to struggle," she said.

Bruce Baumhower, president of United Auto Workers Local 12, told attendees of talks with Chrysler LLC officials on bringing another vehicle to the Toledo Jeep Assembly complex that would allow it to produce more than 400,000 vehicles a year.

"We've had $4.5 billion in capital investment in Toledo since 2001 in the auto industry alone," Mr. Baumhower said.

"If we could land another product here, I think we could convince a number of suppliers to relocate right here to Toledo."



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