MIDDLETOWN, Ohio — Restaurants have waiting lists, art galleries are full of browsers, and boutiques offering an array of gifts are filled with customers. It’s a Friday night and a couple blocks of this once-moribund downtown are teeming with activity. The days when these storefronts were filled with pawn shops and junk dealers seems a distant memory.
“It is very encouraging to see the interest that the artisans, businesses and townsfolk show in this one square block of downtown. What was once the epicenter of urban decay is now the thriving seedling of the city’s rebirth,” said Brian Alcorn, a lifelong resident of the city who frequently goes to events downtown.
At least part of this revival can be attributed to a community college’s arrival. President Obama has been championing his America’s College Promise legislation, which would provide two years of free community college to anyone. Middletown is proving to be a case study in how a community college can do more than give individuals a chance for better economic prospects; it can also rescue a whole town.
While the Rust Belt is full of many cities that have been gutted by the collapse of manufacturing, few cities fell far as Middletown, population 48,694. In 1957, Middletown was designated by the National Civic League as an All-America City. It was home to the American Rolling Mill Corporation (Armco, now AK Steel), a sprawling facility that showered corporate largesse on the city throughout the last century.
But as manufacturing moved overseas, the city hemorrhaged jobs. Population declined by 10 percent, and mills closed. Pools and parks fell into disrepair. The corporate headquarters of the steel mill fled. By 2008, Forbes Magazine had added Middletown to its 10 Fastest Dying Towns list.
The fall from All-American grace seemed complete. Attempts at revitalization were halting, at times ham-handed, and met with derision. Locals christened a Great Miami River revitalization plan in the 1990s as “Lake Mistake.”
But then in 2012, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College came to town.
The college wouldn’t have come without Perry Thatcher, the last of the city’s old paper barons. Thatcher started out as a janitor at a mill and worked his way up the management chain, eventually making his fortune selling cardboard clamshells to McDonald’s and then set about trying to pull Middletown out of its funk.
“He understood partnerships. He loved to save a struggling business, save them and let them go,” said Judy Bober, Thatcher’s long-time personal assistant and now the Assistant Director of Cincinnati State’s Middletown campus.
Bober said Cincinnati State’s Board approved the plan to come to town but wouldn’t release any funds for the project. That’s when boosters of the Middletown campus reached out to Providence, Rhode Island-based Higher Education Partners for funding.
“Higher Education Partners created a unique partnership for community college in Middletown. The state of Ohio is looking at it as a model for other areas to create opportunity,” Bober said.
It is very encouraging to see the interest that the artisans, businesses and townsfolk show in this one square block of downtown. What was once the epicenter of urban decay is now the thriving seedling of the city’s rebirth.
Indeed, the partnership that created Cincinnati State’s Middletown campus — birthing a public community college using a private education investment firm — is untested but could serve as a model for others going forward. HEP’s incentive is that when enrollment reaches a certain level, the firm takes a portion of that tuition.
“I suspect this will be increasingly common in the future,” explained Kelly Cowan, interim director of the Middletown campus.
The new branch of Cincinnati State has been open for three years. Now 700 students with backpacks and earbuds mill around downtown, a number projected to quadruple within the next 5 years.
But beyond the new coffee shops and boutiques downtown that are clearly visible, the biggest benefit of the college is yet to come.
Statistics about the economic impact Cincinnati State has had on Middletown are scarce and according to Michael Jones, Director of Research at the University of Cincinnati’s Economics Center, there’s a reason for that. An economic shot in the arm simply takes time to develop.
“The biggest single economic jolt Middletown will receive from the college is the increased wages that graduates will receive. If you look at the difference between the wages of people with a high-school diploma and those with a four-year degree, it comes out to about $17,000 annually. And even though the degrees from Cincinnati State are two-year degrees, many in two-year colleges transfer on to those that offer four-year degrees,” Jones says, adding that even the two-year degrees equal as much as $3,000 more annually.
“The students inject additional spending into the economic as a result of higher wages,” Jones said. He also has witnessed the same economic impact in other similar-sized cities that have landed community college branches.
Over a 10-year period, even the most conservative projections have that as a $20 million shot in the arm for the city, but it’s very likely to be much higher, according to Jones’s statistics. There will probably be closer to a $60 million economic impact if the university’s projected enrollment figures come to fruition. This economic lubrication will grease the cogs of the entire city, sending property values higher and raising living standards.
For Cincinnati State, Middletown was a great fit.
“It was clear they were really looking for something that would draw people downtown to spur the economic development of their urban core,” said Jean Gould, vice-president of marketing at Cincinnati State. She was part of the original contingent of officials who visited Middletown. Despite the potential, there were still misgivings.
“There wasn’t a lot going on downtown, and that concerned some people, not just myself, but a number of people,” Gould says.
But getting Cincinnati State to come to town was only half the battle. The rest was finding the students, and that’s where a student recruiter like Kelly Cowan fits in. Cowan isn’t waiting for students to come to the college, she’s bringing it to them.
“You need to send people out into the community who look like the students you’re trying to recruit,” Cowan says. She dismisses the old concept of a college with a booth of brochures. Instead Cowan has assembled student volunteer ambassadors who go into the grittiest parts of the city with pop-up tents. Cincinnati State has a booth at Trader’s World, a local flea market. Cowan makes sure booths are put up at Walmart and Kroger on the days government checks are deposited.
Cowan, a microbiologist by trade, serves food in local parks, attends Hispanic culture festivals, and joined the local Moose with its 6,500 members. Cowan, who also works as prison chaplain, is a big believer in second chances, and she thinks Middletown as a whole deserves one and an education, she believes, would provide that.
“We don’t have a middle class, so we have to meet people where they are,” said Cowan, who arrived in Middletown in 1990 and currently serves as special assistant to the president of Cincinnati State.
Middletown resident Anne Grady, 50, is one of Cowan’s ambassadors. After a life filled with drugs and prostitution and stints in prison, Grady decided to turn her life around. Grady has maintained a 4.0 grade point average and looks forward to a more prosperous future.
“Prison doesn’t change people, but education can,” she says.
And, the colleges’ proponents believe, it can also change whole cities.
‘The biggest single economic jolt Middletown will receive from the college is the increased wages that graduates will receive.’
University of Cincinnati Economics Center
At the newly opened Triple Moon Coffee Company downtown a mix of students, professionals, and retirees line up for lattes and egg salad sandwiches.
“We offer a discount for the college students. They come down here and hang out, some of them have a lot of time between classes. We get quite a bit of business from Cincinnati State,” said Heather Gibson, owner of Triple Moon, which joins several new restaurants, gift shops and even a bookstore that have opened up nearby.
Dave Swenson, an Associate Scientist in the Department of Economics at Iowa State University who has studied the economic impact of educational institutions, says this ripple effect is common when community colleges or other higher learning institutions come to town.
“It creates traffic, flow of people into and out of the area, jobs, and with a college you create the dynamic of confidence that happens when you begin to stabilize an area,” Swenson said.
Fresh blood in the city government has paved the way for up to $700 million in new economic projects for the city this year, the majority in the Middletown Energy Center, which will supply natural gas power to 400,000 homes.
But problems remain. Unemployment and underemployment remain stubbornly difficult to dislodge. The 6.1 percent unemployment rate is above the national average and 23 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty line.
City officials are resolutely optimistic. Mallory Greenham is at the helm of Downtown Middletown Inc, which promotes revitalization of the historic center of town. Greenham, 30, recently moved into one of the city’s worst neighborhoods bordering downtown with plans to fix up an elegant old home.
“Of course there are people who are saying I am nuts, but just get a good lock for your door and be sensible. We need people to live here, and Cincinnati State is educating our community and keeping those college-educated people here,” Greenham says.
Meanwhile, Cowan will keep exploring the most marginal sections of the town, trying to sell residents on investing in signing up for a course.
“Middletown will never be what it was in 1975,“ Cowan said, “but it can be just as good in a different way.”