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Thursday, August 6th, 2009

Businesses connect the pieces

By Shelley Grieshop

Investments, such as this new roof on West Bank Inn in Celina, is one sign of he. . .

There are a few signs of economic recovery in the Grand Lake area - from building improvements to recalls of laid-off workers - but local officials believe there is still a long road ahead.
They say diverse revenue sources have helped the area survive so far.
"Our diversity puts us in better shape than most counties who are strong in just one area. We're more resilient, which helps us weather the storm," says Jared Ebbing, who began his new post as director of the county's economic development office on Monday.
Jill Smith, organizational director for the Mercer County Farm Bureau, says the local ag industry remains strong because farmers are accustomed to living conservatively.
"Agriculture historically is up and down, and farmers learn to build their capital. We're always at the mercy of the market and the weather," says Smith, who oversees Mercer, Auglaize, Logan and Shelby counties.
Smith says area farmers are very community-minded and spend their money locally, which helps boost the local economy.
Conservative practices also have been the key to success for many area business leaders, Ebbing says.
"These are people who typically avoid becoming overextended on their finances. However, they've been affected by others' mistakes," he adds.
Some have told him they're waiting to see what happens before hiring back laid-off workers or committing to expansion projects. Although they're not predicting more lay-offs, they're not ruling it out either, he adds.
Celina Aluminum Precision Technology (CAPT) had 550 workers on their payroll a year ago. Today, they employ 375, says company Assistant Vice President Dennis Lee. But the future holds promise, he adds.
"We see some slight increases (in orders) coming next month that we hope will continue through October," he says.
Ten employees were called back in July and another 10 will return soon, he says.
"But we're only going to be calling associates back after looking closely at the books," Lee adds. "We're taking it month by month."
Lee believes people will begin buying houses again before cars, although the current "Cash for Clunkers" deal is helping, he says.
The Grand Lake area continues to suffer from the home mortgage crisis. The number of current property foreclosures in Mercer and Auglaize counties is more than 30 percent higher than averages just two years ago.
In 2008, there were 143 foreclosure actions filed in Mercer County and 72 already filed this year from January through June. Prior to 2007, the average was 100 or less each year.
In Auglaize County, 226 foreclosure cases were filed in 2008 and more than 145 since January. Two years ago the county averaged less than 150 cases annually.
Court officials note that less than 1 percent of the area's foreclosure cases are filed by local lenders.
Mercer County Auditor Mark Giesige says sales tax revenue - a reflection of local spending - is down about $80,000 for the year compared with the same period in 2008. The county broke a record last year with more than $4 million collected. However, due to the lagging economy, Giesige estimated this year's total at $3.8 million.
"I think that's still a reasonable estimate. We might miss it slightly, but I think we'll come real close," Giesige said. "We'll be closely monitoring the situation in the next couple months and can make some changes if we have to."
Even though the county is expected to have a "comfortable" carry-over of cash into 2010, a memo was sent out by the board of commissioners in mid-July asking all county agencies to be frugal. They warned that no extra appropriations would be granted.
"All in all, next to other counties around us, we feel pretty good," says longtime Commissioner Jerry Laffin.
Food pantries continue to report an increase in clients, as well as other agencies that assist the needy, as unemployment figures continue to be above normal.
Janice Hamilton, director of OUR Home Family Resource Center in Celina, said calls have increased since July from residents facing utility shut-offs and/or home evictions.
"The last two weeks we've also had a lot of requests for food and clothing," she says.
Some of the agency's clients said they initially relied on friends and family to help them out, Hamilton says. But as the months went by without a paycheck, those sources "dried up," she says.
"I don't think we've seen the worst of it yet," she says. "Winter fuel bills are just around the corner."
Tammie Holland, manager of the Goodwill store in St. Marys, says "business is booming" - an unfortunate sign of the times.
"We always have our regulars, but now we're seeing new people all the time," she says.
Although the store's success is somewhat bittersweet, she does offer good news: a Goodwill store will open along Havemann Road in Celina in February and provide 15 new jobs for area residents.
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