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Ohio Communities Enjoy Boom : Honda--It’s Just What the Rust Belt Ordered

Associated Press

Some days, Jack Scott is sure he’s dreaming.

Scott, who heads the Chamber of Commerce in this central Ohio city of 8,500, is overseeing what has become a Rust Belt rarity--unprecedented economic growth bringing new people and money to his hometown and other communities in central and west central Ohio.

The catalyst for the change is Honda of America Manufacturing Inc., the nation’s fourth-largest auto maker, which opened a tiny motorcycle plant here in 1980 and now employs thousands of white-suited workers at auto and motorcycle plants here and at an engine plant in Anna, about 50 miles to the west.

The fortunes of Honda--and the suppliers that have nestled around it--have created a boom in Marysville, surrounding Union County and 13 other Ohio counties. The growth has sent officials scrambling for more land and more housing.

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Work Force Totals 5,900

The “Honda corridor” is one of the biggest growth areas in the state, say development experts.

“I wouldn’t discount (growth in) northeast Ohio, Toledo or Cincinnati as far as business development,” said Catherine Ferrari, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Development. “But it would be safe to say that this is one of them. It’s all small businesses. Honda is a boost to that area, but it’s the smaller businesses opening around it that is helping in the growth.”

The figures speak for themselves.

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From an initial work force of 17 in 1979, Honda of America has grown to a company with 5,900 workers--the company calls them associates--at three plants. Another auto assembly plant is to be built in nearby East Liberty, and the existing Anna engine plant is to be expanded.

There is no sign the business boom is going to go bust any time soon.

Honda, which has invested $870 million in Ohio to date and produces 1,500 cars a day, expects by 1991 to have invested $1.7 billion and employ 8,650 workers, said company spokesman Roger Lambert. The company also plans to increase the percentage of parts it purchases from American producers to 75% by 1991 from 60% currently.

In all, the investment has paid off for residents and suppliers in 14 Ohio counties and 24 other states, Lambert said.

Marysville, about 20 miles northwest of Columbus in Union County, and Bellefontaine, about 25 miles west of Marysville in Logan County, are the two main benefactors.

Folks contend that the new flow of money in the area has not changed those who live there.

“There’s still not a whole lot to do around here,” Scott said. “People still work and go home and watch TV. We like it.”

But while the residents may not have changed, circumstances have.

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Boost in Housing Starts

Both cities, in addition to increases in traffic, vandalism and drug trafficking, are rapidly running out of housing and new land upon which to build.

In Marysville alone, 250 housing starts are expected this year. A new school building, YMCA, library and shopping center are planned, under construction or ready to open. An $18-million regional shopping mall complex, multifamily homes, a warehouse and offices to serve the Marysville, Bellefontaine, Urbana and Kent areas are to be built on U.S. 33 just east of Bellefontaine. That project is expected to create up to 900 jobs.

At least one new 18-hole course inside Marysville city limits is under construction, and plans for a golf village in Bellefontaine are in the works.

The need for golf courses grew with the arrival of the Japanese, Scott said.

“They love golf. They play and they play. They love it here because it’s so expensive to play in Japan. It’s a real luxury there,” he said.

But not everyone is happy about Honda’s presence--or the lack of it.

Traffic jams, which never existed in the area before, are becoming commonplace. Smaller employers say they are also feeling some pain from high turnover rates and have had to increase salaries to avoid losing personnel to Honda and other companies that pay more.

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There also are pockets of anti-Japanese sentiment lingering from World War II.

William V. Leitz resigned in April as mayor of Wapakoneta, an Auglaize County community about 12 miles north of Honda’s Anna plant. He said he could not, in good conscience, deal with the Japanese.

“I was on a destroyer (in the South Pacific) that was sunk . . . and I was in the hospital. I don’t care if it would have been the Germans. I would have felt the same way. I’m an American, and I love my country.”

The 64-year-old, 13-year mayor said he would rather quit than hurt the city’s development efforts.

In Lima, about 20 miles to the north in Allen County, Mayor Gene Joseph is angry that Honda and other Japanese companies moving into Ohio have focused much of their activity outside larger cities.

Small Black Population

Joseph stirred controversy and calls for his resignation in early May when he claimed Japanese companies do not want to locate in communities with sizable black populations and strong union traditions.

Marysville’s black population is virtually non-existent, admits Scott.

“Unions have never been here. People just don’t think that way. That’s why the UAW can’t get a foot in here,” he said. The United Auto Workers attempted to organize workers at Honda but withdrew its request for an election in late 1985.

Scott acknowledges anti-Honda sentiment exists, but believes it is a fact of life in a growing city.

“Sure people (complain) a little bit, but most of them are on their way to the bank,” he said.

Communities benefiting from Honda also are enjoying incentives promised to Honda by the state.

Natalie Wymer, a spokeswoman for the state Development Department, said state grants for training and other incentives, such as road construction, total at least $59 million since 1977. Another $4.7 million has gone to suppliers that have since surrounded Honda’s operations. She said the Honda incentive package is among the largest the state has ever offered.

The state has sunk at least $25.15 million and the federal government $65.4 million into the rehabilitation and widening of U.S. 33, the main road through Union and Logan counties. Honda itself is contributing another $30 million. Overall, an estimated $136.55 million has gone toward road renovation in the two counties since Honda opened its doors, according to state transportation officials.

The company has also spent millions for parts and supplies in the area and paid Union County $5 million last year in real estate and personal property taxes. The largest benefactor of that payment was the Marysville school system, which received $3.5 million, he said.


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