Ohio’s Most Lovable Small Town

Logan County, OH
Written by Jessica Ferlaino

Opportunity is in abundant supply in Logan County, Ohio, and leaders from all parts of the economy and community are coming together to make the most of the growth that follows – building a community that everyone can love.

Logan County has a population of some 45,000, 14,000 of whom reside in the county seat, Bellefontaine. For its size, it is impressive how this area has progressively positioned itself to be the “Research and Development Capital of the Midwest.”

From a logistical standpoint, businesses in Logan County have access to markets anywhere in the United States via Interstates 75, 70, and 71, and benefit from proximity and access to the Columbus Metropolitan Area, including the airport.

Logan County is not only connected to Columbus and markets across the United States, it’s connected to the world via the highest levels of broadband connectivity available. This summer, fiber networks are being expanded to every home, making the area ideal for home-based entrepreneurs and those who telecommute, as internet speeds will rival large metros around the country.

Another way growth is being facilitated in the region is through the efforts of the newly established Logan County Port Authority and the Bellefontaine Finance and Development Authority, which serve as additional economic development tools in the county’s toolbox. In just a short time, four projects have been undertaken and three buildings constructed, between the two authorities.

Beating blight
Further to these efforts, a new organization has been formed and tasked with changing the aesthetic of the community. Established in 2016, the Logan County Land Bank is addressing a problem that every community has – blight.

By acquiring properties that have sat vacant and consequently fallen into disrepair, the necessary efforts can be made to either demolish what is left on the property for resale, or use the existing properties for development.

There is an interesting dialectic between economic and social development in Logan County and it is having a profound impact on the direction of the region. There are countless initiatives taking place to support growth which has attracted local and international investments alike, especially spurred by the economic muscle of the automotive sector, which is driving growth in the region.

Engine of change
As Ben Vollrath, President of the Logan County Chamber of Commerce explained, “Those investments attracted other small suppliers in the community. We’ve had some really neat ones in recent years.” That windfall includes international players from Germany, France and Japan, who identified opportunity in the region and so strategically positioned their companies to take advantage.

One of the major employers and economic drivers in the region is Honda. This year the automaker will celebrate its fortieth anniversary of manufacturing in Ohio, a legacy that had its origins in the region, and continues to this day.

Honda’s first foray in the region was its Marysville Motorcycle Plant in neighboring Union County in 1979. This facility was soon followed by the Marysville Auto Plant in 1982, the Anna Engine Plant in 1985, and the East Liberty plant in Logan County in 1989. Today Honda employs 15,000 people in Ohio and last year alone it purchased more than $10-billion worth of parts from more than 170 suppliers in the state.

Logan County is also home to the nation’s largest independent automotive proving ground, the 4,500 acre Transportation Research Center (TRC), a collaborative effort of Ohio State University’s Center for Automotive Research, Battelle, and Honda, that continues to show great promise in the automotive, transportation and mobility sectors.

Technology takes root
“Honda and TRC recently partnered together and are building a $45-million new wind tunnel and Smart City on TRC’s 540-acre Smart campus. This new smart center is going to become a driver for us as well. It’s an off-road testing facility for autonomous and connected vehicles,” Vollrath said. It will offer full interchanges, intersections, highway speed-type environments and various conditions for testing.

The automotive cluster has shifted its focus to mobility and nowhere is this more evident than the US 33 Smart Corridor project, which is attracting global attention, positioning Logan County on the leading edge of innovations that will define the future.

As Vollrath explained, “It runs from TRC in Logan County east through Union County to Dublin in the northwest corner of Columbus. There is a 35-mile stretch of road on US 33 where there will be live autonomous and connected vehicle testing going on, so there’s been a fiber ring built and this year they’re installing dedicated short-range communication towers.”

Part of an advanced technology grant from U.S. Department of Transportation won three years ago, the towers will be located every 600 meters along the designated stretch of highway to communicate with the autonomous and connected vehicles as they pass, collecting data and information related to highway conditions, infrastructure, weather or any other data that would be relevant for analysis.

Another recent investment by Honda that is setting the industry standard is the $1.9 million, 40,000-square-foot Pro Center training facility that will be dedicated to helping the automaker address a skilled-labor shortage in the market. New associates from the Marysville, East Liberty, and Anna plants will attend two weeks of training at the facility in Bellefontaine.

Boosting skills
Vollrath explained that there is a “shift in economic development to help with retention and making sure that people are truly job ready. They want to give them all the tools necessary before they even hit the production facility to be prepped, and ready with the hard skills, soft skills, the culture.”

The gap in the skilled labor market is a problem that is not unique to Honda or Logan County, and in order to support the vast economic activity taking place in the region, there are multiple workforce development efforts taking place.

According to Vollrath, “There are lots of players that are coming around the same table in Logan County now to say: What’s the big picture? What are the challenges? Let’s work together, locking arms to make a difference, and make this a special place.”

Part of this is an ongoing collaborative partnership in Logan County that brings the business community, government representatives, and the various school districts in the county together in the interest of aligning educational programming with the needs of the market.

The collaborative has been gaining momentum in its work. As sixty percent of high-school graduates do not go on to post-secondary studies in Logan County, instead taking advantage of local and regional employment opportunities, this has been a focus.

The career and technical school at Ohio High Point, as well as Clark State Community College which is located on the High Point campus, have included in their programming certifications and upskilling in advanced manufacturing, robotics, smart technology, welding, and other specialties in demand in the local and regional labor market.

Growing success
Another partnership that supports Logan County is Columbus 2020, a regional economic development partner which offers an access point to the State of Ohio, and JobsOhio, which serves as the private economic development entity for the state.

The Columbus 2020 Region is composed of eleven counties and nearly 2.1 million people, the thirty-second largest metro area in the country. Columbus is the fourteenth largest city in the United States and is the eleventh fastest growing, the only city in the Midwest to make the list.

Over the next thirty years the Columbus area promises to grow by one million people, and Logan County, which has had stagnant population growth as of late, hopes to be able to take advantage of that growth to help its own population to grow, as well as its local workforce.

NEX, a local logistics supplier has found a unique way to address the skilled-labor shortage while also growing the local population. “They recently brought in two-hundred families from Florida: Venezuelan and Puerto Rican families who were there seeking asylum,” Vollrath said. NEX has successfully trained and employed them at its facility with impressive results.

Bustling new life
Just as population growth is a priority, so too is housing. Downtown Bellefontaine has seen the addition of twenty-three new loft apartments that were immediately snapped up, and fifty new apartment units are expected by 2020 on the east side of Bellefontaine. More condos are going up in the south end of town.

Behind many of these downtown revitalization efforts is Small Nation, a local developer that is responsible for twenty-seven buildings and thirty new retail and restaurant spaces in the community since 2012, which have breathed new life into the area.

“If you walk through the streets of downtown Bellefontaine on an evening or in the summer, you’re seeing the bustling activity,” said Vollrath, who believes there is something special about the community and the county, thanks to the reasonable cost of living, the quality of life, and the access to a metro area with small town vibes.

A destination of choice
It may be small but it’s impactful. Each day, approximately 10,000 people commute to the county for work, while each winter 150,000 people will visit Mad River Mountain (recently bought by Colorado company Vail Resorts). Likewise, Indian Lake State Park is the second most visited state park in Ohio, so there are countless economic, recreational, retail and culinary reasons not only to visit but to stay.

Logan County boasts an outstanding trail system that certainly adds to the quality of life. A trail, which stretches from downtown Bellefontaine all the way to Cincinnati, supports good health, vitality and recreation.

As Vollrath noted, “We really want Logan County to become a destination of choice for both business and residents. We’re only sixty minutes from the very center of Logan County to downtown Columbus. We’re close enough that we still have the convenience and access, but we’re far enough away that we have our own sense of community. We’re becoming Ohio’s most lovable small town.”

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