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Book club 101: Ohio county tries to save itself

"Community Capitalism: Lessons from Kalamazoo and Beyond" chronicles the revival of a Michigan city, a tale that Ohio officials hope will inspire an economic revival.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The books came by the crateload, slim and shiny, pressed from hand to hand on the quiet streets of this manufacturing city. You must read this, people said.

It started with 12 copies. Then there were a thousand.

By the time it was done, Licking County had spent $12,500 ordering more than 1,400 volumes of the book — a self-help manual of sorts for the economically challenged — and sent it home with teachers, preachers, farmers and politicians.

"Community Capitalism: Lessons from Kalamazoo and Beyond" chronicles the revival of that Michigan city, preaching the idea that instead of waiting for a government bailout, communities should tap into existing resources and fix their own problems.

Ohio officials hope the book will inspire an economic revival in this community, whose factories and businesses have shuttered and whose young people are steadily leaving. It's a tall order, especially in these bleak economic times when resources are hard to come by.

"It's pretty interesting how they kinda just said, 'We're gonna have to do this ourselves,"' said Jim Layton, general manager of the National Trails Raceway in Hebron, which has suffered from higher operating costs and fewer car racing spectators.

Layton joined about 150 community leaders who, in their excitement over what they had just read, formed a makeshift book club on a cold November evening to discuss how they can keep the county from fading into obscurity.

"How many of you have read the book?" asked Pat Jeffries, a retired insurance executive who served as moderator. About three-fourths of them raised their hands.

"The sky is the limit, really, for this community," Jeffries said. "How do we make this area an attraction for people to come here and settle?"

They haven't quite figured that part out yet.

Creating an action plan
The rule at the meetings was "no whining, no griping, no complaining," said Steve Layman, board chairman of the Licking County Port Authority, which oversees transportation and economic development. The book was recommended to the economic development agency's board, which ordered the first copies and then decided everyone should read it.

The plan was to lay out the community's best attributes first. Figuring out what, exactly, to do with them would come later.

Hands shot into the air as people waited their turn to talk about what they loved most about the area: its parks, bike trails, hospitals. They boasted about The Longaberger Co., a landmark shaped like a sand-colored woven basket.

A growing list of assets covered sheets of white paper tacked to the walls.

"When that courthouse gets lit up at Christmas time, there's nothing more beautiful than that," Jeffries declared. "That's a postcard. That's small-town America."

But Newark, a city of about 45,000 people, is filled with empty storefronts and charming old-fashioned buildings that seem stuck in the past. The only sign of modernity in the central square is a sign hanging in the window at a McDonald's in Candlewick Commons, a condominium home for seniors: Wi-Fi Here.

Longaberger has laid off several hundred employees in recent years. Building materials maker Owens Corning plans to put some of the 700 workers at its Newark insulation plant on unpaid furlough. And that's just the surface of the deep well of layoffs here.

'Community Capitalism'
Bob Evans owns Newark Family Shoes, which sells mostly Hush Puppies and orthopedic footwear. Evans stopped selling children's shoes long ago because people stopped buying them. Dog-eared books and handmade quilts for sale are piled on tables in the back of the 103-year-old cluttered shop.

It is shops like these that the group of impassioned readers hopes to save. To the people of Licking County, Kalamazoo is a promised land of sorts — a symbol of what their hometown could be.

Twenty years ago, a creek used as a storm sewer ran through the middle of Kalamazoo's downtown, often flooding businesses, said Jack Hopkins, former CEO of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation.

In the late 1990s, car makers and pharmaceutical companies began to desert the city. To help spur growth, Southwest Michigan First, a local development group, approved more than $20 million to fund low-interest loans geared toward community projects.

The creek has been converted to a waterway with fountains, and the city has built a $20 million museum, open mall and five-star hotel.

Ron Kitchens, the author of "Community Capitalism", was dismissive of the global economic crisis, saying it's more of a problem in the media than it is in the heartland.

"You see some corporations that are having a little trouble with loans these days," he said. "But I have dozens and dozens of companies that are absolutely succeeding, they are hiring people everyday. They haven't bought into that there's a collapse."

'Our greatest asset'
Kalamazoo, for instance, is faring well in the downturn compared to most Midwestern cities, though it has endured its share of job cuts, too.

But for all the pep talks and the brainstorming sessions, Licking County's endeavors have mostly resulted in a rudimentary step: forming committees to tackle the slew of mounting problems. One committee, for example, is dedicated to persuading voters to pass a school levy that was defeated last fall.

The most striking accomplishment, it appears, has been the community's ability to rally around a common cause.

Faced with the specter of tougher times ahead, residents are bucking each other up. During that frosty first meeting, a man named Brett McClintock motioned to the moderator for the chance to speak.

"I think the people are our greatest asset," he said, looking around the room at all the eager faces. "Their ingenuity, their ability to do more and more with less and less."