Economic Development Council: Athens needs higher wages, affordable housing

Click here to read the original story in the Athens Messenger

By Samantha Taylor, Messenger Staff Journalist


What does Athens County need to boost its economy?

The answer, according to the Athens County Economic Development Council, is two-fold: the county needs jobs with higher wages and more affordable housing within the city of Athens.

In a presentation to Athens City Council on Nov. 20, ACEDC Executive Director Sara Marrs-Maxfield provided data that indicated Athens County has plenty of room for improvement in those fields. The median household income of the county is approximately $34,900, which is $20,000 below the national median household income of $53,900.

Marrs-Maxfield related this to the lack of jobs with higher paying wages. She said the “largest occupation in Athens County” is post-secondary teaching at Ohio University and Hocking College. Such employees made approximately $31.45 per hour, she noted, significantly higher than most other high-volume occupations in the area. The next biggest occupation is in food preparation, with these workers making an average of $9.04 per hour.

Marrs-Maxfield said the ACEDC has been working to create and attract higher-wage jobs to the county. Going forward, the group’s goals are to add 2,500 high wage jobs (paying about $17.40 per hour) and increase the per capita income by 15 percent.

Affordable housing is another component to both attracting and retaining jobs, she said — particularly for the employees who would work for companies that establish themselves in the county.

“One of the biggest challenges we have in retaining our talent here in this community is affordable housing,” Marrs-Maxfield told council.

She added that the lack of affordable housing is one of the main reasons why the companies she works with lose employees, particularly those who are categorized generationally as millennials. Currently, millennials are a “significant proportion” of Athens County’s population, according to Marrs-Maxfield, with an estimated 20,700 people (between the ages of 20 and 34) out of 66,175 total residents in 2016. That number is much higher than the national average, figures show.

“Often folks will say, ‘Well they can just go outside the city and it’s much cheaper,’” Marrs-Maxfield said. “That’s not what they mostly are looking for — they’re wanting to be close to those amenities, they want to be near the bike path, they want to be in a walking community … all those things are what they’re really looking for, and some of our companies are losing their best talent because they can’t find homes that are affordable.”

The city’s higher housing stock combined with its lower wages has created an “opposing force” that Marrs-Maxfield said she has seen grow “worse and worse.”

“It’s a big challenge and it’s going to continue to be a challenge,” she said.

Councilmember Chris Fahl said the city is going forward with its recently established commission on affordable housing.

The Messenger previously reported this commission was recommended by the Athens/Ohio University Affordable Housing Task Force, chaired in part by Councilmember Michele Papai. Marrs-Maxfield noted she was also a part of that task force.

The task force released a report last year stating the student housing industry is a significant economic driver in the city’s housing market, which has led to an inflated value of housing stock in Athens. Additionally, the growth of multi-student housing complexes has drawn students from single-family homes, leaving many abandoned or in severe disrepair, thus negatively impacting the city’s neighborhoods.

While the city works to address affordable housing, the ACEDC plans to focus on its objectives of attracting and retaining high paying jobs, as well as develop new sites for jobs and encourage small business growth. Marrs-Maxfield presented the following ACEDC strategies to reach those objectives:

Retooling the ACEDC

  • Dramatically increasing its private sector budget support to match public sector support
  • Remaking its website
  • Launching a comprehensive economic development marketing campaign for the region targeting manufacturing, advanced services and technology industries
  • Implementing a business retention and expansion program starting with existing companies

Getting engaged in the site development business

  • Developing two industrial parks and office complex tied to rail, road, broadband and energy infrastructure; focusing marketing efforts on manufacturing, advanced services and technology-oriented companies
  • Exploring the use of the state’s new Downtown Redevelopment Districts (DRD) program to enhance historic redevelopment efforts in downtown Athens to provide additional office space in the city; there are currently three DRDs nearing completion in Athens and one in Nelsonville
  • Developing at The Ridges

Building on successful small business and technology-based economic development strategy

  • Attracting small business and technology jobs through the creation of an Athens Community Fund and the development of a technology accelerator in the city