The Commercial Appeal

Governor works to erase ‘Rust Belt’ label

Kasich points to expanding ‘knowledge belt’ in the region

- JULIE CARR SMYTH Persistent label Past is prologue

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Ohio Gov. John Kasich has a pet peeve: the use of the term “Rust Belt” to describe his state.

The Republican governor has made it his mission to send the label to the scrap heap of history. He points to advances in such areas as drones, data analytics, biotechnol­ogy, robotics and autonomous vehicle research.

“We’re a big manufactur­ing state. But we also want to change the image of Ohio into something from the Rust Belt to the Knowledge Belt,” Kasich said during an Associated Press forum this month. “Now, this is hard.”

Why is it hard? Because it’s been repeated and entrenched over more than 30 years, including by President Donald Trump during last year’s election, when he called Ohio and Pennsylvan­ia places where “everything is rusting and rotting.” A look at the economics and politics of the debate:

Manufactur­ing roots

Ohio’s manufactur­ing roots date to the earliest days of its statehood. The first steel furnace west of the Alleghenie­s was built in Poland Township, near Youngstown, in 1802, according to the Ohio Steel Council. The region’s readily accessible coal stoked steel-making furnaces and the region’s steel, rubber and glass were shipped to nearby plants to make cars.

The industry was devastated by a combinatio­n of economic changes in the 1970s and 1980s, including foreign competitio­n and strict environmen­tal regulation­s. That left behind abandoned — yes, rusting — mills, unemployme­nt and a fleeing working class. Ohio lost 405,000 manufactur­ing jobs between 1969, when employment at Ohio factories peaked, and 1983, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The sector settled in at around 1 million jobs for almost two decades after that. The sector began a pre-recessiona­ry descent in the early 2000s before employment bottomed out at 614,000 in 2009.

Advances and innovation­s are bringing the sector back, with 76,000 jobs added as of 2016.

Democrat Walter Mondale helped invent the term Rust Belt during his 1984 presidenti­al bid. Mondale attacked the economic policies of incumbent Republican President Ronald Reagan for “turning our great industrial Midwest and the industrial base of this country into a rust bowl,” according to the Dictionary of American History. The media picked up on the concept and the Rust Belt label was born.

Kasich isn’t the first to try to replace the name.

During their 2006 campaigns, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and former Gov. Ted Strickland, both Democrats, promised to make Ohio “the Silicon Valley on alternativ­e energy.” Technology business in northeast Ohio created a “Tech Belt” with western Pennsylvan­ia and northern West Virginia.

A recent “Trust Belt” movement by central U.S. business leaders pushes back against what they say is a media misreprese­ntation of the region’s economic progress.

Marketing and economic developmen­t experts say the best way to shed Ohio’s Rust Belt label would be to acknowledg­e and embrace the state’s manufactur­ing legacy with a new image that it can live up to.

Ohio State University economist Ned Hill said Ohio shouldn’t try to shed its Rust Belt label, but to build on it.

Younger generation­s actually like the label, said Richey Piiparinen, director of Cleveland State’s Center for Population Dynamics and author of “Rust Belt Chic.” “‘Born into ruin’ is what we say. They don’t have the psychic baggage, they were not born in the heyday,” he said. “And so this idea of resiliency, of struggle, of fighting for your land, of being proud of your land, but at the same time not having any illusions about what we were, that’s been a whole new generation owning that term.”

He said Kasich’s promotion of Ohio’s knowledge economy makes sense amid a climate where Trump is stoking the fears of blue-collar regions that elected him by painting a picture of “this Mad Max world.”

 ?? MADELINE DREXLER/AP FILE ?? Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich has made it his mission to scrap Ohio’s “Rust Belt” label, a fight against 30 years of usage.
MADELINE DREXLER/AP FILE Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich has made it his mission to scrap Ohio’s “Rust Belt” label, a fight against 30 years of usage.
 ??  ?? Ohio Gov. John Kasich points to technologi­cal advances in the Midwest.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich points to technologi­cal advances in the Midwest.

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