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How locals see our economy

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EYE ON OUR ECONOMY This is part one of the ninth article in a series examining the economic landscape of Yellow Springs.

Local jobs don’t pay enough for people to afford to live here.

That’s how many villagers summed up the problem with the Yellow Springs economy in a recent online survey.

A total of 299 residents of Yellow Springs and Miami Township participated in the 20-question survey, which ran from April 25–May 11.

Survey respondents noted that a combination of high local housing costs and a seeming abundance of low-wage service industry jobs here are driving many low-wage workers to live elsewhere, while most local residents now commute to higher-paying work outside of town.

In a later interview, one respondent, 27-year-old Lindsay Burke, called this predicament a “Catch-22,” pointing out that while housing costs are high in the village, local wages in her age demographic are low.

“You can either have high wages or you can have lower housing prices [in the village], but you can’t have both of those things,” Burke said.

Burke knows the local economic reality well. Along with a whopping one-third of survey respondents, she works more than one job to make ends meet, a rate that appears to be far higher than the national average of 5 percent, according to 2010 Census figures. Burke cleans houses, teaches piano, plays piano for a church, works at a couple of downtown shops and does childcare.

“People in my demographic, we don’t make a lot of money and we work a lot, cobbling together many jobs to live in Yellow Springs,” Burke said. While two incomes from a variety of local jobs has allowed her and her husband, Stephen Hunt, to live here with their two-year-old son, Logan, “we don’t have the energy to do it forever,” Burke said. Meanwhile, high housing costs have meant a sacrifice in their lifestyle that not all are willing to make.

“We enjoy living in Yellow Springs so we’re willing to pay for it, but if you’re wanting to attract young families who will invest in this town you need to make living here possible for them,” Burke said.

The economic pressure is not only on younger workers. Many retirees on fixed incomes are feeling the stress of stagnant tax revenues from local payroll in the form of a growing property tax burden, according to those surveyed. Dianne Collinson, who retired in 1997 from the Antioch School and purchased a home here in 2003, has found her property taxes rising much faster than her income. In recent years the problem has become more acute, as Yellow Springs weathered the subprime-mortgage housing collapse with strong housing values, while wages have stagnated and the region has suffered job losses.

“In Yellow Springs, real estate has not depreciated, so you get the double-whammy of evaluation going up and continuing levies, and the [job loss] of the recession,” Collinson said. “It’s hard for seniors to live within their means.”

The importance of the two issues — housing and jobs — was underscored by the fact that the top two village goals for those surveyed was a healthy economy, followed by affordable housing. Energy conservation and sustainability and infrastructure and services came next.

Survey respondents also identified the decline of large local industries over the last few decades, the paucity of new businesses coming or starting here, the lack of diversity in local jobs, an overreliance on tourism and a negative attitude toward businesses as ways that the Yellow Springs economy is unhealthy.

At the same time, tourism was overwhelmingly seen as one of the bright spots of the local economy, bringing in outside money and contributing to a “thriving downtown,” according to those surveyed. The village would do best to promote local arts, cultural and recreational assets, a strategy identified as the most effective way of growing the economy.

“We draw a lot of visitors to town who shop, dine, recreate and enjoy our cultural offerings,” a local female professor who works in Fairborn wrote. “Antioch College is beginning to rebound. We have a critical mass of small businesses that serve local residents.”

What Yellow Springs needs most are jobs that pay a living wage, especially in the technology field, along with more professions like architects and doctors and jobs in manufacturing, according to survey participants. The village should capitalize on its strengths in education, sustainable food and energy production, health and wellness and the arts and tourism in revitalizing our economy, they said.

Growing established local businesses and helping startups here should take precedence over attracting new firms to town, survey respondents added, and after promoting Yellow Springs’ cultural and environmental assets, the village should create a business mentorship program for entrepreneurs and launch a business incubator, other highly-effective strategies for economic development.

Tourism: a double-edged sword
The most advantageous, but also troubling, aspect of the Yellow Springs economy is the prominence of tourism here, according to the survey, with many extolling its benefits and encouraging the village to build on this strength and others hoping the village moves away from tourism.

Almost half of all the aspects survey respondents said was “healthy” about the local economy related to tourism, including the strong downtown, the many retail shops and restaurants here and the numerous events that draw visitors here. At the same time, many felt the economy was too reliant on tourism. Survey respondents were concerned that downtown retail businesses and restaurants pay lower wages, are subject to seasonal variability and don’t offer workers a chance at career advancement.

“We have a great many folks in the service industry who find it difficult to make ends meet,” noted one respondent. “Because of the lower wages of service jobs they provide less revenue to the tax base also.”

One respondent wrote that the growth of the tourism industry is creating a “monoculture economy” that is more susceptible to fluctuations in the state and federal economy. Another summed up the sentiments of many survey respondents when he wrote that the problem with tourism is that “there is too much reliance on it, or that it’s reliance is ruining something about YS,” adding that “many tourists only come for the atmosphere, not to purchase gifts.” Others saw the gifts sold at many retail shops as not meeting the needs of villagers and wished for more items to be sold here so they wouldn’t need to leave town to purchase them, such as children’s clothing or meat from a butcher shop.

“The more you can do for yourself, the more you will grow your own economy,” Burke said of shops selling more products for locals. “If we have to leave Yellow Springs to go get basics, that’s growing the economy somewhere else.”

While a service-oriented economy can be helpful for the local economy, much of the proceeds of that go to the county and state in the form of sales taxes, which is why a baseload of employers in larger markets like education, healthcare and manufacturing, are desirable for many communities, according to survey participant Matthew Kirk, who works in the economic and community development field.

How big a part of the local economy is tourism? By number of jobs, the industry that relies most on tourism (retail and restaurants) is the second largest in town (18 percent), far behind educational services (34 percent) and just ahead of manufacturing (17 percent), according to 2011 Census figures. While jobs were lost in tourism over the last decade, they did not decline as dramatically as in other sectors like manufacturing and health care.

But jobs that cater to tourists are not only some of the most visible jobs in the Yellow Springs economy, they symbolize the low wages many local workers accept in the face of fewer living wage jobs here. Over the last decade the village lost more jobs paying between $15,000 and $40,000 per year than in any other pay scale. A total of 336 jobs in that range were lost between 2002 and 2011, far greater than the 165 jobs lost that paid less than $15,000 per year.

However, according to Census figures, the number of jobs here that pay more than $40,000 per year increased over the last decade (by 108 jobs), a fact that survey respondents did not reference. Some however, did speak to a seeming increase between the rich and poor in town, which itself is a sign of economic trouble.

“This is becoming a village of two types: very poor, and ultra rich. So sad … ” wrote one respondent.

A 2010 Yellow Springs High School graduate, Moriah Johnston, sees wealth inequality and lack of jobs as driving a demographic change to an older, whiter town with fewer ties to its “original culture” of diversity. Hailing from a multi-generational family, Johnston said that there are few professional jobs paying more than minimum wage with the possibility of advancement here, driving many high school graduates out of the community. Johnston, who has worked at many local retails shops, including at Glen Garden Gifts and Young’s Dairy, said such jobs are good for some workers, but don’t pay enough for people to settle in town.

“These jobs are great if you’re getting started or are trying to pick up extra income or if you don’t need the money, but there is no upward mobility,” Johnston said. She added that most retail jobs here pay the minimum wage, while sometimes they pay less than minimum wage to under-16 employees under the table.

But throngs of tourists can give some local businesses the boost they need to survive, and in general tourism is responsible for a large influx of money and energy from outside town, survey respondents said. Several cited the success of start-up Yellow Springs Brewery as an example of a business leveraging the village’s regional draw. One respondent wrote that the mass of tourists spending their money here has meant a rise in “micro-businesses that embrace and thrive on that energy.” Small businesses were generally hailed as a sign of health in the local economy, and many such businesses are geared towards a tourist crowd.

Attracting visitors to town is also a way of attracting new residents, who may move their businesses here or start new ones. Jenny Good is just that sort of resident. She moved to the village with her two children in November after visiting for many years, and has brought her home-based life and business coaching company with her. Good cautions against what some outside the community perceive as an unwelcoming attitude towards outsiders, while the village should also do what it can to keep tourism from changing its character.

“We need to do what we can to strike a balance between making visitors feel welcome and appreciated and retaining the authenticity of Yellow Springs,” wrote Good in her survey. As for the reasons visitors come to town that should be retained here: “They see this area as an the exact counter to what they see in their own life — the corporate world, rush hour traffic, pollution, disconnected government and police force — so when they come here it’s a dose of escapism for them. I think we need to welcome that.”

High tech, high wage jobs
More than anything else, villagers surveyed pointed to technology jobs as a way forward for the local economy. Such jobs were described as the following: “high-tech,” information technology, computer programming, software development and including science and engineering fields, research and development and biotech.

But some respondents saw barriers in getting such jobs here. As one wrote: “High tech/IT jobs. These jobs require power, good internet access and a place to meet and sit. Our power is OK (usually), internet access is satisfactory, but the office spaces are extremely limited and expensive.”

The second most common thing that survey respondents said the village needed was more living wage jobs. Recently, there have been debates over raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour, and some Yellow Springers surveyed feel strongly that wages should increase. According to some research, over the last 40 years minimum wages — and the wages of most workers — have not kept pace with rising living expenses. This could be especially the case in Yellow Springs, where housing sale prices diverged in 1990 and were double the Dayton area average last year.

Real wages in the U.S. peaked in the late 1960s, according to a study from the Center for Economic and Policy Resources, and some estimate they have fallen as much as 60 percent since. It is sometimes noted that today it takes two incomes in a family to make the same that one used to make. As a result, many two-income households in the village cannot afford a house here, a situation that Burke and her husband know well. Enacting a living wage in the village would help workers as well as business owners who would suddenly have employees that are more invested in the businesses’ success, Burke said.

“If people are getting paid peanuts they don’t care if they’re doing a good job and don’t care if their employer succeeds,” she said.

But a local business owner wrote in the survey that he was skeptical that a strategy that enforced an across-the-board wage would benefit anyone, since a business could go under if it were forced to pay employees more.

“Companies should pay an appropriate wage for their industry,” he wrote. “Unfortunately in some industries, the lowest level workers cannot make a living on the prevailing wage. That said, if a local business — with competition in the marketplace — pays more than the competition, they will likely go out of business, which again, doesn’t help anybody.”

When asked about the practices of village businesses, that they pay their employees a living wage was cited as the most important by those surveyed. Others getting high votes were operating as sustainably as possible and providing health insurance for their employees, while businesses giving preference to hiring locally, making sure top managers live in town and providing a good or service for local citizens were seen as less important.

This story is the first of two parts; the second will appear in next week’s News, and will include economic development strategies favored by villagers.

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