First of two parts
OAK HARBOR, Ohio — To Americans who have never visited this quaint little village about 30 miles east of Toledo, Oak Harbor has been little more than a dateline for news generated by the nearby Davis-Besse nuclear plant the past 40 years.
But to those who grew up in northern Ottawa County, students in the highly regarded Benton-Carroll-Salem school district, and others with connections to the village and its surrounding townships, Oak Harbor still possesses the heartbeat and feel of a charming, Norman Rockwell-esque small town.
Its most prominent intersection downtown is anchored by a locally owned hardware store with creaky wooden floors.
Neighborhoods are well-kept, a mix of stately old homes — some brick — with porches large enough to kick back and enjoy soft, summer breezes. Fast-food and chain restaurants have made inroads, but locals still talk up the homemade pies at Mom & Pop diners.
Now, with Davis-Besse’s future looking grim, there’s a lot of anxiety about how much longer the Oak Harbor area can cling to its idyllic aura. Even if the plant isn’t shuttered for good on or about FirstEnergy Solutions’ announced closure date of May 31, 2020, the village faces a number of challenges, starting with multiple empty storefronts in its business district.
“Uncertainty’s been the name of the game,” Oak Harbor Mayor Joe Helle said. “Looking at this area as another Rust Belt community is a possibility someday. I hate to say it, but it’s true.”
Like a lot of America’s small towns, Oak Harbor’s been hurt by online sales, competition from big-box retailers, and a tax base eroding because of an ever-changing job market.
But nothing could impact it more than Davis-Besse’s closure. The plant employs 700 people, 40 percent of whom live in Ottawa County. Many reside in Oak Harbor and nearby Carroll Township, where the plant is located, while others contribute to the local economy as they pass through.
Both Oak Harbor and Carroll Township have enjoyed more stability than other areas because the plant — until recently— generated $20 million a year in tax revenue for Ottawa County, of which $12.1 million went to the school district.
Those figures shrunk dramatically last fall when FirstEnergy Corp., in a cost-cutting move staunchly opposed by local officials, convinced the Ohio Department of Taxation to devalue Davis-Besse for taxing purposes nearly 75 percent.
The plant’s previous value of $184 million was dropped to $49.8 million. That brought the plant’s total in annual tax receipts down to $11.1 million for the county, of which $7.5 million now goes to the school district.
That $4.6 million shortfall for schools represents nearly 25 percent of the district’s $20 million budget.
A billboard at the edge of Oak Harbor, Ohio. The school district has two big issues on the May 8 ballot tied to the looming shutdown of the Davis-Besse nuclear plant.
The Benton-Carroll-Salem school district faces other financial challenges and close to an overall shortfall of $6 million. But the biggest hit, remains the plant’s devaluation — and nobody knows how much steeper the losses will be if the plant closes in 2020.
The district somehow weathered that initial blow without layoffs, relying on a combination of retirements and drawing down its reserves.
But it knows that path is not sustainable. It has put two issues before voters on Tuesday’s ballot — a proposal for a 1 percent tax on earned income and a proposal for an additional 3.89-mill levy — that would together generate $3.4 million a year.
BCS School Superintendent Guy Parmigian said that’s not enough to get the district back to its heyday of the 1980s, when it was riding high as Ohio’s best-funded school district. But he said it’ll stop the bleeding and help the district maintain many of the programs that made it strong. It is proud of being ranked Ohio’s 29th best out of 614 school districts.
He said his message to voters is to stop worrying about what they cannot control, and to “double-down” on investing in a school system that for many years has made the community proud.
Pride is seen in many of Oak Harbor’s downtown storefront windows that have words of support for the school district painted on them.
“We have to keep working harder to keep those jobs,” Mr. Parmigian said. “If it wasn’t for the devaluation, we wouldn’t be on the ballot this year.”
School board member Heather Dewitz said the district believes that passage of those two ballot issues will buy it another five years.
After that? Who knows?
“Right now, there’s not enough information to speculate,” Ms. Dewitz said.
Hard being patient
The saving grace of Davis-Besse’s closure, if it comes to that, is that it appears unlikely all 700 plant employees would be laid off immediately after the final shutdown.
Many employees, especially security officers and certain highly skilled workers, are expected to remain working at the plant for years as it enters its mothball phase, known as decommissioning. It could take decades before spent radioactive fuel has decayed enough to be moved so that buildings can be leveled and the site can be restored.
Stephanie Kowal, Ottawa County Job and Family Services director, said she felt a little reprieve when she learned the utility that owns Vermont Yankee has laid off an average of 60 employees a year since that nuclear plant was taken out of service in 2014.
“It will be a handful of years before the true impact is felt,” Ottawa County Improvement Corp. Director Jamie Beier Grant said. “One thing we've learned from the Vermont Yankee experience is it is a complex process closing a nuclear power plant. It doesn't happen overnight.”
The area’s biggest enemy could be panic, Ms. Kowal said.
She is reminded of a story about human behavior in times of crisis. When people are caught in a sinking boat, the story goes, some get together and try their best to bail out water. Others panic and drill holes through the hull to make the boat sink faster.
Her advice: “Don’t make knee-jerk reactions. Don’t get hung up in panic.”
The uncertainty is “wearing on the community, it's wearing on employees,” Ms. Beier Grant said.
“We have to continue to push forward to find a solution to save the plant,” she added. “At the end of the today, my goal is to keep the Dave-Besse nuclear plant open and operational no matter what flag is flying over it.”
But it’s hard being patient.
Besides the plant workforce, a whole generation of business and community leaders have grown up depending on that plant.
“Davis-Besse’s been a blessing to the community since the 1970s and we always thought they’d be here,” Mike Shadoan, owner-president of Radiant Windows and Remodeling and chairman of the Oak Harbor Development Group, said.
Jim Sass, Ottawa County commissioner, said Davis-Besse has been an “economic engine for the whole region” and it’ll be hard recruiting new businesses with the “stigma of a nuclear plant shutting down.”
“We were disappointed, but it wasn’t a shock,” he said of the FES shutdown announcement.
FES is a subsidiary of FirstEnergy Corp., created to manage the ultimate fate of the utility’s unprofitable nuclear and coal-based power plants. The parent corporation has said it plans to focus on electricity transmission and distribution.
Mr. Sass and other officials said they support calls for legislative relief similar to what’s been done in the states of New York, Illinois and, most recently, New Jersey. Critics have called them bailouts.
’You have to adapt’
Carroll Township is feeling Oak Harbor’s pain on a smaller scale.
On Tuesday’s ballot, the township has a proposal for a 2-mill levy that would raise $373,000 a year to help maintain police services.
Carroll Township lost $500,000 of its $2 million budget from Davis-Besse’s devaluation, township trustee Jordan Moore said.
The township police department went from five full-time officers to a part-time, interim chief and another officer.
Without that levy, Davis-Besse’s closure could force trustees to someday look into closing down the township police department, and contracting services from the Ottawa County sheriff’s department.
“Obviously, it’s going to have an effect on our region,” Mr. Moore said of Davis-Besse’s future. “You have to adapt. What else can you do? Pound on Davis-Besse’s door?”
In rural Benton Township, the water vapor from Davis-Besse’s massive cooling tower can be seen on a clear day several miles to the west at Blackberry Corners, a well-established family restaurant and bar that stands by itself along State Rt. 579 and North Elliston-Trowbridge Road.
The same plume has guided boaters out on Lake Erie when they need a landmark or a quick reminder of which way the wind’s blowing.
Blackberry Corners is known for its pies and a friendly country atmosphere.
Owner Brenda Lowe is a 1975 Oak Harbor High School graduate who grew up in the shadows of Davis-Besse. She spent years as a Benton-Carroll-Salem school bus driver before retiring and becoming a substitute.
“I just worry about the families. Our schools are going to hurt so bad,” Ms. Lowe said.
She is hopeful there will be more jobs involving Lake Erie and Ottawa County’s famous marshes. She said she’s excited about the potential economic impact of birders, hikers, canoeists, and other outdoor travelers being attracted to Metroparks Toledo’s newly opened Howard Marsh Metropark in eastern Lucas County’s Jerusalem Township.
One of the most popular hangouts for Davis-Besse employees is Porky’s Pizza Trof, a restaurant and bar about a mile east of the plant.
Owner Dennis Rice, an East Toledo native and 1980 Waite High School graduate who lives in Graytown, met his wife at Blackberry Corners. He said many Davis-Besse employees have told him they believe someone will step in and save the plant.
The business he gets from those employees help get him through the winter months, and keep Porky’s open year-round. Without them, he might eventually have to make his establishment a seasonal restaurant, he said.
“It’s scary,” Mr. Rice said, estimating that as much as 30 percent of his business comes from Davis-Besse employees. “I’m going to stay optimistic until whatever is going to happen actually happens.”
Gail Swartz, Turtle Point Marina manager, said changes are likely in store even for the marina.
“Besse has always been a fixture,” she said.
Larry Adams, owner of the Happy Hour Inn, a tavern along Oak Harbor’s main drag that isn’t bashful about its support of Ohio State athletics, agreed the village could see further decay.
“The city’s already aging,” Mr. Adams said. “If there’s not an opportunity for jobs, young people will leave. I’m hoping someone will step in and restructure things.”
The plant’s future has been a topic of discussion at almost every Oak Harbor village council meeting for months, according to Mayor Helle.
“We’ve kind of been left out on our own,” he said, adding the lack of support from area legislators has been “disgusting” and intolerable.
He and others are looking for impacts beyond schools. Some speculate the area’s several marinas, for example, will have no choice but to charge more for docking fees if the plant’s closure kills property values.
Mayor Helle also said it’s inevitable there will be less money for Oak Harbor parks and recreation programs, and that road improvements will likely be delayed, among other cutbacks.
“We’ve inherited a problem that was never planned,” he said.
Said Mr. Cook: “The ride is coming to an end.”
Commissioner Sass agreed the outlook is bleak, but said he and others are doing their best to maintain the character of Oak Harbor and its surrounding areas.
“The sun’s still going to come up if that plant closes,” Mr. Sass said. “Life will go on. We just have to figure out how.”
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