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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.