Portsmouth: A Pocket of Poverty?

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The census figures that say three Ohio communities have been hit particularly hard by the slumping economy might be skewed. Both Athens and Oxford have large off-campus populations of students who would report themselves as low-income. But that doesn’t explain Portsmouth’s ranking where poverty according to the report has nearly doubled in the last 9 years.

Waves from the Ohio River wash ashore below the post-modern U-S Grant suspension bridge. The bridge is the most prominent feature in Portsmouth, funneling Kentucky traffic over the city’s flood wall, into downtown. But look closely at the business district and you’ll see cracks in the fa ade. New census data show that Portsmouth is struggling. It’s one of three Ohio communities, the report says, that have been particularly hard hit by the slumping economy.

“I really think that if you looked into it you would see that a huge majority of the population in Portsmouth and right in the areas around Portsmouth are on welfare,” says Christi Wymer.

Wymer owns a shop called A Different Daisy on Portsmouth’s 2nd Street. Like other downtown stores she only has a small client le. From her observations, she says the unemployment rate in the area is unusually high. She’s only been able to stay in business, she says, by selling online.

“For a lot of the small businesses I think that people spend the majority of their money at stores like Wal-Mart and they’ve kind of forgotten about the small businesses,” Wymer says. “So if I didn’t have the internet there’s just no way that I could make it because there’s not enough traffic coming in my store to spend the money to keep me open.”

The census report says that in 2005, 19 percent of workers in the Portsmouth area were unemployed. That’s almost double the figure from 1999. The head of the local Chamber of Commerce Robert Huff says the news is unexpected.

What I scanned I am surprised and I would need to look back into when was the data collected and therefore what kind of changes have occurred over this time period,” Huff says. “I don’t know of any major layoffs in our community, there have been a few small but we’ve also had several hirings in our community.”

As Huff runs through a list of local employers it’s hard to believe the picture of poverty that the census figures portray. The local hospital is the largest employer with about 2200 jobs. There’s Mitchellace, a shoestring factory that’s been a mainstay in the Portsmouth community for decades. But there are some high-tech employers as well.

“USEC, United States Enrichment Corporation, enriches uranium for the electric generating plants that are nuclear; UDS, Uranium Disposition Services, takes the waste material that’s left over after you enrich uranium and they mine out the fluorides and sell those in the commercial market. OSCO is a gray metal foundry. In other words they do molten steel, pour it into molds for the automobile industry. And refrigeration units across the country “

And the list goes on and on, Huff says. Steel Fabricators Incorporated; Sun Coke; Scioto Plastics. He says the proposed Russian steel mill proposal also remains very much alive. But the prosperity that once defined Portsmouth a half century ago may be elusive for the foreseeable future.

In Athens, the city with the highest poverty rate, the story is different. The city that’s home to Ohio University had 52.3 percent of its residents in poverty during the first half of the decade. But a local official believes that students are skewing the figures. Bret Allphin is a manager for the Buckeye Hills-Hocking Valley Regional Development District.

“We’re seeing a large number of students being counted as anyone else would count,” Allphin says. “And technically that’s admissible because technically they’re not living in official college dormitories.”

Allphin also believes there are more and more of what he calls the working poor. People who might be traveling greater distances to work at lower wage jobs.

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