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AP: Ohio, Pennsylvania Manufacturing Towns Struggle

Associated Press Economic Stress Map shows that although the recession has hit both states hard, the troubles in Ohio are much worse.

ERIE, Pa. (AP) -- This part of the Rust Belt near the Pennsylvania-Ohio border finds itself at an economic crossroads again, much as it did in the 1970s when manufacturing began its long decline.

But choices in the years since are making the future look slightly brighter on the Pennsylvania side even in places such as Pittsburgh, while Ohio cities and towns such as Cleveland suffer more.

"We jump back 30 years, when the steel industry all collapsed at the same time, I think (Pennsylvania's) industry transitioned from steel to other things," said Joseph Mayernick, executive director of Growth Partnership for Ashtabula County, an economic development agency in northeastern Ohio. "We transformed to other things that were still tied to the automobile industry."

The Associated Press Economic Stress Map shows that although the recession has hit both states hard, the troubles in Ohio are clearly much worse. The color-coded map is based on an index of unemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcies in more than 3,000 U.S. counties -- the higher the index's number for a county, the worse the recession's impact.

Ashtabula, Ohio's northeasternmost county, had an index score of 16.17 in the latest figures from May, up nearly eight points since the recession started in October 2007. Progress to diversify there has been slow, and made tougher by the recession, Mayernick said.

Erie County, Pa., Ashtabula's neighbor just east, had a rating of 10.07, up more than four points during the same period. One reason is that one in five Erie residents work in manufacturing, compared with about one in four in Ashtabula County, according to U.S. Census data.

There were similar trends farther south.

Trumbull County, Ohio, had one of its state's highest scores at 17.15. General Motors Corp.'s plant there in Lordstown employs more than 2,200 workers.

The factory is silent again during another temporary summer shutdown. Dozens of suppliers in surrounding communities, including in Ashtabula County, rely on automakers to stay afloat.

Mahoning County, which includes Youngstown, was at 14.91. The recession delivered another blow to a city still trying to recover from the demise of steel and other blue-collar businesses.

"We're surviving. We're hanging on," said Benny Naples, 50, who helps run the Golden Dawn restaurant in Youngstown, owned by his father since 1934.

Bankruptcies and foreclosures are up, and companies have shut down that "people didn't think would shut down," Naples said.

Heading south from Erie on the Pennsylvania side, Crawford County's index rating is 10.71, while Mercer County is at 12.36, and Lawrence County is at 10.72. Those are among the highest ratings in Pennsylvania.

But scores lower than Ohio's show that western Pennsylvania's economic diversification is paying off. In the Erie region, for example, there has been growth over the years in the leisure and hospitality sector, as well as higher education and health care.

Allegheny County, which encompasses the regional urban hub of Pittsburgh, has a rating of 8.36, compared with the 13.64 rating for Cuyahoga County in Ohio, which includes Cleveland.

Once heavily reliant on steel, Pittsburgh's economy is now more closely tied to somewhat "recession-proof" fields including health care and education, said U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, a Democrat from western Pennsylvania.

"If you look at what Pittsburgh went through in the 1970s and early 80s, I think that is what Ohio has gone through and maybe hasn't quite recovered to the extent that Pittsburgh has," Altmire said.

Richard Golonka, chief financial officer of Snap-Tite Inc., said his company is "holding its own" in the recession, having laid off about 15 percent of its 600 workers with business leveling off. The Erie-based firm makes couplings, hydraulic valves and other fittings.

"We're waiting patiently for things to turn around," Golonka said at a reception held by the Manufacturer & Business Association in Erie before an appearance by former President George W. Bush. "People got to start buying. When they buy, orders will come in, but we have no idea when that will start happening."

Golonka, 63, who has lived in the area for almost three decades, agreed that Erie's economy hasn't suffered as big a hit now because it is less reliant on manufacturing.

Damian Kuzmin, president of Rapid Mold Solutions in Erie, said he decided about six years ago to transition more of his business away from the automobile industry in an effort to diversify. Now, his company also makes molds to produce items like decoy duck heads and medical devices.

Kuzmin estimates about 35 to 40 percent of business today is auto-related, down from about 60 percent earlier this decade.

"It's always been our outlook not to put all our eggs in one basket," said Kuzmin, whose business has expanded twice since opening 10 years ago. "We'd been involved in auto a number of years, but we had seen the handwriting on the wall."

More regional collaboration is seen as one solution to help economies on both sides of the state line. It's relatively common for residents who live near the border to commute to the other state for work if needed.

Altmire and Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, whose districts abut each other, have collaborated to promote a "Tech Belt" in western Pennsylvania and northeastern Ohio that they hope creates jobs in advanced services and industries.

"We want to use all the resources that we have. Let's all work together," Altmire said in a phone interview. "When I say, 'Silicon Valley,' you know what that is. We want to develop that 'Tech Belt' in the same way."

One characteristic shared by Pennsylvania and Ohio residents was blue-collar optimism that the area -- regardless of which side of the state line -- would rebound from the latest financial crisis.

"The one thing about this area, people stick together," said Daryll Clark, 49, who has been laid off from his job as a press operator for about seven months. Clark, whose son is the starting quarterback for the Penn State University football team, sat in a booth with Naples at the Youngstown restaurant.

The region "has had tough times before, and they've come out of it," Clark said.

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