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Economic Uncertainty

What about that filled-up downtown? Looks can be deceiving. Half the 25 merchants interviewed in 1998 for a marketing strategy study said their sales were flat or declining. A quarter said they were thinking about relocating. The challenges are many: Competition from nearby mega-retailers like Wal-Mart; a customer base that declines with the local population, reducing the number of everyday shoppers; and a poor history of attracting out-of-town visitors--who might spend money at stores or on meals--to Oberlin's cultural events.

"We do need livelier businesses downtown to draw people,'' concedes Allyn Gibson, the semi-retired owner of Gibson's Bakery. "There are places downtown that are making a go of it, but they have to work hard and use their head. It's always been a bit of a rough row to hoe in Oberlin, because it runs hot and cold with the seasons of the year when students are here. Nobody is making a killing in Oberlin."

The news about the area's bread-and-butter industries that employ hundreds of people is also discouraging. Bayer Corporation purchased the city's biggest property-tax-paying employer, Chiron Diagnostics, last year, only to shut the doors in a consolidation move. Gone by year's end will be 375 good jobs and $350,000 in tax revenue from Chiron. The College and the Federal Aviation Administration, two other major Oberlin employers, are property-tax exempt, rendering Chiron's loss an even more severe financial blow to city services, from road paving to housing inspections to summer recreation programs for area kids.

The flagging overall economy in Lorain County combined with limited education, poor job skills, and the loss of blue-collar jobs in town has left many of Oberlin's residents not just poor, but poverty stricken. According to the 1990 census, more than a quarter of Oberlin's residents lived below the federal poverty line (a four-person household, with two children, earning less than $16,895). And city officials say poverty is just as prevalent today as it was then, borne out by the rising number of children who get free meals at school (27.6 percent today versus 25 percent in 1998) and the people turning to social-service agencies for help with food, clothing and rent.

Further, more than half the available housing in Oberlin is rental property and some, thanks to absentee landlords, is decaying--particularly in the area south of College Street and east of Main Street. In addition, unexpectedly high enrollment in recent years has pushed a third of College students into off-campus housing, much of it in this southeast quadrant, making affordable housing even more scarce--and expensive--for low-income town residents.


Rising Crime

The number of robberies and burglaries remains relatively low, but assaults last year increased a disturbing 61 percent over 1998, from 38 incidents to 61. College personnel and students have not been disproportionately victimized by crime, although two female students were assaulted in recent years. Drugs are becoming more of a problem as well: The city recently closed down a crack house.

"Not that it's rampant, but for incidents of serious crime, we rank third in the county behind Lorain and Elyria," says DiSpirito. "We did have one murder last year, and the year before there was an arson murder. We're not a Shangri-La. We have real problems, and we're trying to deal with them in some very dedicated ways."

To that end, the town is starting to enforce building codes and is helping to build or renovate low-income housing with the aid of a $1.7 million grant from the state, says City Council Chair Fran Baumann. Organizations like the Zion Community Development Corporation, an outgrowth of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, are helping owners renovate their homes. There's a moratorium on rooming houses to cut down on non-owner occupied housing and on absentee landlords who have no stake in the town's future. Authorities are also buying surveillance equipment to counter drug activity, using undercover agents with the Lorain County Drug Task force, and adding a second detective to the police force.


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