For years after the Great Recession, Ravenna watched as the rest of Portage County and Ohio recovered jobs and grew back their economies.
Employment in the city declined during almost every quarter between 2012 and 2018, headlined by the closures of the GE Manufacturing facility on North Chestnut Street and Portage Precision Polymers on Lake Street.
But lately Ravenna’s economic fortunes have turned. Major companies are investing in central Portage County to launch new production and distribution sites, a giant warehouse is under construction in Shalersville and an international manufacturer picked Ravenna for its new corporate headquarters.
In fact, one of the impediments to Ravenna growing even more is that there’s no more space to put another big employer.
“There’s no vacancy in any of our large buildings,” said Dennis West, the city’s economic development director. “We have one medium-sized building that’s still vacant. But all of our large buildings have either been sold off or leased out.”
In a recent economic report, West called the surge of business activity the biggest economic change “since General Electric moved here in the 1970s.”
Economic development officials attribute the positive activity in Ravenna to larger economic forces in the nation and the region. Northeast Ohio has become a hub for electric vehicle manufacturing, with Lordstown Motors revving up production and Ford announcing a new EV plant in Lorain County.
And even though most tire-making jobs have left town, Northeast Ohio still depends heavily on polymers and materials manufacturing jobs. There are over 1,000 of them in the region, according to Team NEO, an economic development organization.
That’s what likely attracted LG Chem, the massive Korean chemical company, to construct over 200,000 square feet of factory space off North Chestnut Street. They broke ground in May and will eventually produce ABS, a kind of plastic used for injection molding.
And this is just a portion of the new development. In the last three years, various companies are moving into over 700,000 square feet of commercial retail space around Ravenna, West said in the economic report. All the activity will add about $13 million in payroll to the community, he said.
Among the other arrivals is Boston Group, which is consolidating into the former GE warehouse on state Route 14. The new 308,000-square-feet facility will serve as the corporate headquarters and manufacturing plant for the company, which makes fixtures used on the retail floors of grocery and hardware stores.
Ravenna also recently welcomed Light Speed Hosting, FNS Logistics Co. and Standard Hydrogen, West said. Menards will be building a distribution center, with construction expected to start in 2024.
Expectations are so high for central Portage County that Geis Construction is building a 1-million-square-feet warehouse in Shalersville on spec.
The only space Ravenna seems to have plenty of is retail. City leaders say they’re working to lure retail, restaurants and entertainment businesses to support an influx of middle- and upper-middle class jobs to the area.
Arasin Hughes, executive director of Main Street Ravenna, said the east side of town, around Mimi’s Italian Grill and Bar and Chipotle, has no commercial vacancy. The area is popular because of its easy access from state Route 14, she said. The trick is to get people to come the extra few blocks west.
The old site of the Oak and Rubber Company and Riddle Block 9 on Main Street are looking for anchor tenants. And Hughes said she and West have been selling Ravenna to out-of-town businesses for possible expansion into Ravenna. Their pitch is that Portage County residents are looking for new places to spend money.
“The need for it is there, the want for it is there,” she said.
Average annual wages in Ravenna have been climbing about on par with the rest of Portage County since 2012, and West expects that to continue as LG Chem and others bring in high-tech manufacturing jobs. In mid-2021, the average salary in Ravenna was $51,219, which was a 6.8% increase over the previous year, he said.
What’s less clear is how many current Portage County residents will benefit from all this growth. Many of the new full-time jobs in all those factories and corporate offices will go to people with specialized skills moving to the area.
Kent State, Hiram College and Youngstown State could be part of the answer, but Maplewood Career Center and local high schools will also play a part.
Community organizer Frank Hairston sees opportunities to stem the Portage County brain drain, but only if leaders can begin preparing kids now for the kinds of jobs on offer.
“What skills should we be teaching our kids right now?” Hairston said. “If we really want our young people to stay in Portage County, we just need to let them know what’s here. They want to know what kind of money I’m gonna make. If you tell them it’s over $20 an hour and this is the training you’ve got to do, they’ll do it.”
Ben Wolford is the editor and publisher of The Portager.