Residents of Forbes-dubbed fast-dying town defend area

By Elise Franco

Austintown trustees realize that job losses have had an impact on the township.

AUSTINTOWN — There’s more to the township than meets the eye, or even the U.S. Census.

That’s how some residents respond to a story naming Austintown the No. 5 fastest-dying town in America.

The list of 10 was compiled using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, a three-year study.

The Forbes Web site says it calculated the ranking using “income growth, the rate of domestic in-migration, the change in poverty and the percentage of the population with a bachelor’s degree or higher.”

Those who live and work in the township said they wholeheartedly disagree with the assessment of Austintown — saying there’s more to it than mere numbers.

Norm Holfer said he moved to the township a year ago, after living in North Jackson for 44 years, believing he and his wife could obtain a better quality of life.

“This is the nicest community in the whole area — no comparison,” he said. “I don’t think anything is going to really shut it down.”

Holfer said he thinks the township has established itself enough as a working community to hold its own during seemingly tough times.

“I think it’s definitely diversified enough, businesswise,” he said. “There are enough small businesses to keep itself alive.”

Jim Clark of Berlin Center works at the Hallmark store in the Austintown Plaza and doesn’t think the “dying” label is warranted.

“I think Austintown is holding up better than a lot of communities — better than Youngstown,” he said. “For a midsized community, it’s holding up good so far.”

Dave Ditzler, township trustees’ board chairman, said so much more needs to be taken into account when looking at a survey.

“I think that the way [Forbes] assembled the data is misleading,” he said.

“First of all, it only encompasses communities between 20,000 and 65,000 in population.”

Ditzler said Austintown led Mahoning County in new-home starts from 1994 to 2004 and is still considered a growing community, even if the data shows otherwise.

“A lot of recent home starts have been new couples,” he said.

“Younger people are moving in at lower salaries that don’t necessary reflect conditions” in Austintown.

Trustee Lisa Oles agrees, saying in 2005 the township was named the local community with the highest growth spurt in commercial development.

In 1980, the U.S. Census recorded the township’s total population as 37,664.

The 1990 census cites the population as 36,740. It rose again in 2000, to 38,001.

The survey revealed that in-migration — the number of people who come to live in a region or community, especially as part of a large-scale and continuing movement of population — has “fallen drastically, from 5 percent in 2000 to 0.6 percent in 2007.”

The article said, “The area has gone from a middle-class suburb with a moderate poverty rate of 8.8 percent to one with 13.8 percent.”

The township is also referred to as one of the “manufacturing hubs hit hard by declines in the auto industry.”

Oles and Ditzler said they both realize the reality of some of the statistics used by Forbes, especially the increase in poverty rate from 2000 to 2007. Ditzler said some of the increased poverty could be a result of General Motors employees’ retiring.

“The most glaring contributing factor is that we have a third of retirees from GM residing in Austintown,” he said. “You had an entire segment of a work force who went from working to retirement income.”

The story, written by Matt Woosley, concurs with Ditzler’s idea, saying Austintown’s ties to the city of Youngstown account for part of the township’s loss of jobs and in-migration population.

Ditzler said while he doesn’t dispute the findings, regardless of what statistics say, he feels Austintown is a solid community capable of withstanding an economic downturn.

“We’ve always been a community of blue-collar workers. I don’t see that as a negative or something that’s new or different,” he said. “We have a lot of factory workers, manufacturing jobs and hardworking individuals. I don’t think that equates into a detriment to our community.”

Oles said what’s happening in Austintown isn’t unique to the township and is happening all over the country.

“I don’t think our community is any different than any community in the United States right now,” she said.

“I don’t think that article took into consideration the big picture, and I think the more we talk about it, the more validity it gives to the article.”

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