In early 2016, Site Selection magazine listed the Sandusky County area as number thirty-nine on its list of the best “micropolitan” regions in the US for past-year business investment and expansion. It was the third year in a row Sandusky County was included in the top ranks of the magazine’s micropolitan list (a ‘micropolitan’ being a primarily rural region with no cities over 50,000 people and a total population below 250,000).
Being recognized in this manner has been “really important, because that sets us ahead of many other communities and counties throughout the nation when it comes to economic development and capital investment,” states Kay E. Reiter, Executive Director of the Sandusky County Economic Development Corporation (SCEDC).
Situated in North Central Ohio, Sandusky County has roughly 60,000 people, a growing economy, a business community eager to attract new companies and an enviable lifestyle for residents.
The county is very well located. “We’re within one day’s drive of seventy-eight percent of manufacturing in the United States,” notes Reiter.
This is clearly advantageous for local manufacturers looking to distribute products or receive supplies. In addition to its strategic locale, Sandusky County features several major transportation routes. The county is served by the Ohio Turnpike (I-80/90) and I-75 and as well as nine other roadways and two rail lines. There is the Sandusky County Regional Airport which offers private, corporate and air taxi services. The county also has access to world markets thanks to the nearby Port of Toledo, which opens to Lake Erie.
This port access is very important for county farmers looking to ship their goods. Agriculture is huge in Sandusky County; roughly seventy percent of available acreage in the county is under cultivation for farming purposes.
“Sandusky County and Northwest Ohio is highly noted for corn and soybeans,” notes Reiter, adding that tomatoes, peppers, cabbages and pumpkins are also popular area commodities.
Agriculture and manufacturing are key to the county’s economy. Other major economic sectors include the service industry and tourism.
The top industrial employers in Sandusky in 2016 were Whirlpool, a washing machine company with 3,100 workers, Revere Plastics, an injection molded plastics firm with 605 workers and plastic injection molding company ABC Inoac Exterior Systems with 478 workers.
According to officials, several manufacturers are adding production lines or expanding facilities in Sandusky County, a move that will create and retain jobs in the area. This is welcome news, as there is a strong effort by area officials to boost the county’s manufacturing presence.
There are incentives for companies looking to set up or expand in Sandusky County, including enterprise zones, which offer property tax abatements. The SCEDC and partner organizations such as JobsOhio and RGP work closely with businesses to entice them to stay, expand or establish roots in the county.
JobsOhio is a self-described, “private non-profit corporation designed to drive job creation and new capital investment in Ohio through business attraction, retention, and expansion efforts.”
The Regional Growth Partnership (RGP) is, in its own words, a “privately led organization committed to meeting the needs of businesses, site consultants and corporate real estate professionals” in Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan.
There are also programs in Sandusky County designed to encourage young people to consider manufacturing jobs when they finish school.
In the fall of 2015, the SCEDC hosted the inaugural THINK Manufacturing Career Showcase for 825 grade nine students. The second version of this event, held October, 2016, drew 915 students from ninth grade. For the latest showcase, each student took part in hands-on activities built around a certain skill set. Skill sets included teamwork and problem solving, robotics and automation, continuous improvement and lean manufacturing, machining trades and blueprint reading, mechanical and electrical trades.
The SCEDC’s long-term goal is to raise awareness of career opportunities in advanced manufacturing and ensure a reliable pool of new workers in the future as senior employees retire.
In October, 2016, the Ohio Economic Development Association (OEDA) honored the SCEDC with the Excellence in Workforce Development Innovation award for the THINK Manufacturing showcase. The OEDA offers advocacy, training, networking and workforce development initiatives to boost Ohio’s economy. The SCEDC is already planning the next showcase, scheduled for fall 2017.
Another program, called REACH, run by the Sandusky County Chamber of Commerce, is intended to promote career education to school-age children. Under the program, consultants from local companies visit students in upper-elementary schools to discuss their line of work. Consultants present lessons from a curriculum developed by Ohio State University, lead participatory activities and take the students on a tour of their place of business. For the 2016-2017 school year, there are plans to send consultants from roughly thirty partnering businesses to speak to thirty-five classes in thirteen schools.
There has been significant capital investment in Sandusky County recently. “In 2015, we had $291,616,250 in capital investment, 900 jobs created and 3,627 jobs retained. Our 2015 projects ranged from industrial, educational and medical,” says Reiter.
Capital investment for 2016 stands at $398 million, with 235 jobs created and 4,778 jobs retained. “We’re just short of $400 million [in capital investment]. That’s pretty huge,” states Reiter. This capital investment comes primarily from companies in the county’s manufacturing, healthcare-related and service-industry sectors.
Officials say the big leap in capital investment reflects the strength of the county’s economy. Companies in manufacturing, health-care and the service industry “are confident they’re going to see increased growth when it comes to the services and products they provide. So that’s what’s driving [capital investment],” notes Reiter.
Reiter says the biggest economic challenge facing Sandusky County is the aging workforce. This problem is not unique to the county, but part of a nation-wide trend in which the massive baby boomer generation is approaching retirement age.
Facing up to this challenge is “one of the reasons we’re doing things like the THINK Manufacturing program,” explains Reiter.
Sandusky County is home to Terra State Community College, a two-year commuter school that offers associate degree programs and certificates. The school’s origins can be traced to September, 1968, when instructors began using the local Vanguard Technical Institute for night-classes in engineering and business. The college currently resides on 103-acres of land and has over seventy-five degree and certificate programs in applied science, applied business and arts. The college features the Kern Center for Business and Industry Training which provides training for companies and public workshops.
Sandusky County’s history goes back to the early nineteenth century. What became Sandusky County was the site of Fort Stephenson, where American troops won an important victory over the British during the War of 1812.
Sandusky County was officially established on February 12, 1820 by the Ohio state government. The county is named for an Indian term that can be translated as ‘at the cold water.’ The year Sandusky County formally came into existence, some 852 people lived in the area. This leapt to 10,182 by 1840. At the turn of the twentieth century, a total of 34,311 people resided in the county. The population continued to rise steadily, if not spectacularly, passing the 60,000 mark in 1970. The number of residents has risen a bit since then, then settled to its current level.
The county offers many attractions for current and potential residents. For a start, the cost of living in Sandusky County is over fifteen percent lower than the US average. Average housing prices in Sandusky County are around $100,000.
Residents can enjoy everything from sleigh rides in Spiegel Grove, community theater performances and a farmers’ market to outdoor concerts in warm weather. The Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museums is a popular attraction for local residents and tourists alike. A former governor of Ohio and the nineteenth president of the United States (serving from 1877 to 1881), Hayes spent much of his adult life in Sandusky County. The Hayes Presidential Library was launched in 1916 and was the first presidential library open to the public in the United States.
Recreational opportunities include boating, fishing (the county is known for its Walleye fish) and birding. The county attracts thousands of avian enthusiasts each year, drawn by the spectacle of flocks of birds that gather in the area as part of their annual migration. The presence of so many birders is good for the local hotel and retail trade, points out Reiter.
The SCEDC actively uses social media to promote Sandusky County. The Economic Development Corporation relies on Facebook as its primary platform, but also has a presence on Twitter, Instagram, Youtube and LinkedIn.
For all the planned economic expansion, local officials don’t think Sandusky County’s population is going to explode any time soon. Area leaders would be pleased by a two percent annual growth rate in population. “If you grow too big, too fast, there are a lot of concerns with that,” Reiter notes.
Part of the county’s charm, after all, is its small town feel in addition to good job prospects and solid economic development.