Economic forecast discussed at Groundhog Day Luncheon


By Tammy Watts

GREENVILLE — The Darke County Chamber of Commerce held its annual Groundhog Day Luncheon on Feb. 18 at Romer’s in Greenville. The program began with a lighthearted economic prediction for the county, courtesy of resident “hog,” Darke County Dave, Chamber of Commerce President Peggy Emerson, and Diane Ewing, of event sponsor Premier Health. Dave highlighted positive statistics, such as Darke County having 1,000 active vendor licenses, so, “It’s no sowprise that unemployment in Darke County is under three percent,” he said, peppering his statements with puns.

After the plush pig made his exit, a more serious panel discussion ensued. Emerson was joined by Darke County Commissioner Matt Aultman, Zach Bruening of Edward Jones Investments, and Bill Lee, of event sponsor Dayton REALTORs.

Lee began with what he sees as Darke County’s biggest obstacle to growth: lack of adequate workforce housing. “Old zoning laws are getting in the way,” he stated, adding that infrastructure development, including the setup of utilities, has to take place before housing projects can be planned. According to Lee, low housing inventory is an issue which stems from a halt in building new homes, dating back to the 2008 crisis. In the years since, population has increased, but new construction has not kept up with demand.

Bruening was optimistic, that despite some volatility, the stock market (S & P index) was up 26 to 27 percent at the end of 2021. While expressing concerns about the 7.5 percent inflation rate over the last year, he anticipates the Fed will hike interest rates at some point this year. Higher interest rates make it more expensive for consumers and businesses to borrow money, in the form of mortgages, credit card transactions, and loans, but in turn, slow spending to counter inflation.

Commissioner Aultman spoke of several major ongoing, and recently completed projects, which positively impact Darke County residents. The Midmark expansion, Wayne Healthcare’s expansion, the overall growth in the Village of Osgood, and downtown revitalization in Union City, Ind., which will affect neighboring areas, are boosting Darke County’s economic health. The county has received around $28 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), for the cities, townships, and villages.

“If you don’t use federal money, it goes back, and then gets spent in some other community; so we might as well spend it,” Aultman stated. He also identified some challenges for Darke County, including a projected $8 to $10 per acre loss on soybeans, as well as increasing costs for items associated with agricultural production. The price of fertilizer has risen fourfold, herbicide is scarce because the active ingredients are imported from Europe and China, and diesel fuel is up 80 cents a gallon. Furthermore, there is a 15 to 18 month wait to purchase police cruisers, due to supply chain issues affecting the whole nation.

Emerson discussed nationwide workforce trends affecting Darke County, as well: companies facing staffing issues due to early retirements, women not returning to work, and immigration restrictions. According to Emerson, 40 local businesses participated in a recent job fair, however, only seven job seekers attended. She stated that more than half of the county’s population aged 55 and over, is retired. More women are staying at home with children, due to increasing child care costs.

“They are also participating in the gig economy,” Emerson said, adding that in areas with greater population density, it is often possible to earn as much money in a weekend, working for food delivery or rideshare services, as through the week in a traditional 9 to 5 job. Darke County’s agricultural industry is being heavily impacted by lingering immigration and travel restrictions, due to the government’s COVID-19 policies.

“Immigrants make up 13 percent of the population, but 73 percent of the agriculture work force,” said Emerson. Recognizing the need for legal immigration to sustain growth, The Darke County Chamber of Commerce is a signatory to the Ohio Compact on Immigration, released by Ohio Business Immigration Solutions (OBIS) in December 2020. According to the OBIS website, the goal is to “promote immigration reforms that will strengthen the economy, attract and retain global talent, and bring new businesses to the Buckeye state.”

While panel participants acknowledged the many challenges presented by the unique circumstances of the past two years, the overall tone was optimistic as the meeting concluded. Perhaps the ever-confident Darke County Dave said it best: “We are strong, and the year will end high on the hog!”

Contact Daily Advocate Reporter Tammy Watts at [email protected].

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