Just about every Fourth of July, I make the trek from New York City to my home state of Ohio. This year, I made this journey with fresh eyes, having spent a good deal of time in the booming economy of China in recent months.
It's always a bit of a cultural shock. My hometown of Lancaster, Ohio long ago witnessed the meltdown of glassware manufacturer Anchor Hocking Company, now under the stewardship of private equity firm and turnaround specialist Monomoy Capital Partners. The remains of the run-down Lancaster Glass factory right in the center of town greet visitors passing through on Route 33. Storefronts along Main Street are boarded up, and most people drive 30-plus miles north to Columbus to do serious shopping. I don't know of any movie theatres in Lancaster now, though we used to go to the drive-in.
Not that Lancaster doesn't have its good side. The fireworks display at the Fairfield Country Fairgrounds each Independence Day would make all "Buckeyes" proud -- the best fireworks I've seen anywhere! The town's historic Square 13 district, a 24-block area with stately homes and majestic churches, counts such sights as the birthplace of Civil War General Tecumseh Sherman as well as the home of U.S. Senator Thomas Ewing. The downtown also sports the charming Shaw's Restaurant and Inn and a well-stocked library. And the town plays host to weekly summer concerts at the bandstand and the Lancaster Arts Festival each July for nearly two weeks. Lancaster also has a campus of Ohio University, where even Mandarin language classes are now being held.
But I'm not the only one worried about the future of this former factory town and its lush farmlands in the countryside -- aptly named Fairfield County. Acre upon acre of corn and soy bean fields are being sold to developers looking to transform this town into a bedroom community for the fast-growing service economy in nearby Columbus, Ohio.
Unfortunately, Columbus is about the only hope that the state's economy has -- though it too suffers. Can anything be done to bring back the summer series of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra?
A recent column in The Wall Street Journal points to negative numbers for this Midwestern state on many scores -- unemployment, household income and education. The state also ranks 47th in the nation for new businesses -- though on a recent book tour through Columbus and Lancaster, I was encouraged when I met several budding entrepreneurs who were bootstrapping new businesses in the foothills of the Appalachians. Columbus is also home to radio station WOSU, whose daily talk show Open Line is hosted by the talented Fred Andrle - one of the few broadcasters who thoroughly read my book, Silicon Dragon, before he interviewed me.
Despite the occasional bright spots, it makes me sad to see this Rust/Farm Belt of the U.S. Midwest surrendering with a shrug to thriving economies in Asia. There is a vast, blank stare on the faces of many of the mall-goers -- inevitably hugely overweight -- I see in the heartland.
Compared to bustling cities in China I've been frequenting, well ... there's really no comparison. There's a real entrepreneurial spirit you feel as soon as you land at Beijing International Airport, and the vast shopping malls, smooth, wide boulevards and new infrastructure that's being readied in time for the Olympics is only the beginning of this shift in power from the West to the emerging Dragon economy. Most of all, what I sense in China is an optimistic spirit of millions of young people. It is uplifting to be around -- whereas as much as I don't like to admit it, Ohio is depressing and depressed.
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