Thursday, July 30, 2009

Wait -- Where's the Rust?

“There’s this big project called Patchwork Nation,” she said. “They’ve chosen eleven cities to tell the story of the national economy. And Akron’s one of them.”

When you come from a place like this, a midsize city that has struggled for a generation with identity issues, being noticed always prompts a particular kind of thrill. Sometimes we feel like the Who’s down in Whoville, trying to get our story out. For most of the 20th century, Akron knew exactly who it was, and the rest of the hemisphere knew it too: The Rubber Capital of the World.

In the years since the loss of that defining industry, it’s often been difficult to establish the same kind of connection. We can say we live in the hometown of LeBron James, but that only provides the touchstone of a native celebrity. It doesn’t say anything about who we are.

So, yes, I was intrigued that my city was one of the chosen eleven. But I also knew what was coming next. She said each of these cities would represent a “type”: Boom Towns, Tractor Country, Monied ‘Burbs, Military Bastions.

I kept waiting for the one I expected to hear -- Rust Belt or Post Industry. Something like that. That’s the other thing we’re used to, the world identifying us by what’s no longer here.
And that’s when she said it.

“Campus & Careers.”

“Really?” I said.

And maybe I sounded a little more surprised than I’d liked to have sounded, but it’s a conditioned response in a place like this. You don’t lose 75,000 fellow residents in your lifetime without having a bit of a complex.

“Yep. Campus & Careers,” she said. “ It’s based on the high concentration of colleges around Akron and the number of young, educated people who live there.”

Which may well true, but even at that, Akron and all of Ohio struggle mightily with what the demographers call “brain drain,” yet another term that defines us by what’s no longer here. We’re used to the headlines about our brightest talent flowing to other places (often warmer ones), headlines based on statistics, but also on perception.

A 2006 study by the University of Toledo’s Urban Affairs Center concluded that Ohio’s brain drain was less common than is generally believed. “Only about 20% of 2000-2003 graduates left the state,” the authors wrote, quantifying the figure as “a relatively low percentage.” Additionally, the report showed, the trend has been improving over the past decade, in great part, I’m certain, because of the effort by cities to keep their homegrown talent here.

That’s another trademark of a place like this -- the recognition that we have to work harder to keep what many other places take for granted.

Some can argue that the Campus & Careers category is an odd fit for Akron, and I wouldn’t completely disagree. But I’d also argue that part of the oddness is based on the fact that we’re used to old perceptions of ourselves, and not so good at seeing what we are in the present, and what we’re becoming.

“Campus & Careers?” Sure. Why not? Of course.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Uterus vs. The Economy

I was surprised at how many delighted women are walking around out there without uteruses and ovaries. This realization came about when I had a hysterectomy this past June. The surgery was definitely necessary. I am 59 years old, and although those parts of my anatomy had served me well – producing three bright, beautiful children -- they were now malfunctioning. I will spare you the gory details. Still I wasn’t all that excited about having my lower abdomen slit open and body parts cut out. But as word leaked to co-workers and friends that I would be out of the office for at least three weeks for surgery and recovery, women began sidling up and whispering, “I had one too. Best thing that ever happened to me. You’ll feel like a new woman in six months.”

An artist friend told me that since she had the operation, she has not had a cold or the flu – and that was 20 years ago. A 68-year-old co-worker, who has been
sans-uterus three years, said she feels sexy again. One said I would wake up one
not-too-distant morning feeling as energetic as a teenager. Another said that after hers she lost 50 pounds – the diet she had been on forever finally worked! These miracles seemed practically biblical. I even began believing that the surgery would cure my arthritic knees. (While in the hospital I actually thought it had. The first time I stepped out of bed, my legs felt young and bouncy. I would have jumped with delight except for the stitches and staples in my belly. I imagined running a marathon or climbing a mountain. Then as I stepped toward the bathroom, I heard the rattle of the metal pole that was attached to my arm administering a morphine drip. Oops -- just a medicinal miracle.)

I am now two months out from surgery with just four more before the miracles supposedly begin. I am well aware that there is still arthritis in my knees and Mt. Everest is not in my future, but a lot of other nasty symptoms are gone. But -- if not for my good health insurance -- the miracle I would be hoping for is staying out of bankruptcy. My surgery and three-day hospital stay cost $25,432.65 or two-thirds of my yearly salary. I cannot imagine paying that out-of-pocket. It was hard enough writing a check for the $1,751 deductible.

According to a Harvard Law/Medical study published in 2005, illness and medical bills were the leading factor of personal bankruptcies, causing 50 percent of them. Most of the bankruptcy filers were middle class; 56 percent owned a home and the same number attended college. In today’s economy of job loss, over-extended debt and market slides, I suspect these figures hold true or are worse.

Without my health insurance, I would not have had a hysterectomy in June. I would have continued living with those unmentionable gory details -- feeling constantly tired, not the least bit sexy and dieting to no avail. I would have put off treatment until perhaps the situation became life threatening. And actually, without health insurance, many women put surgery off even then. It is more important than ever that our (well-insured) government leaders come up with a universal healthcare plan. If not, there will be a lot more women walking around out there with malfunctioning uteruses and ovaries – with little hope for miracles.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Staycation vs. Vacation

For the last few months, my husband and I have really had to adjust our lifestyle and tighten our belts to keep up with the ever-changing economy. I took a 10 per cent pay cut for the last quarter of our fiscal year and my husband’s hours were cut in half during the summer because he’s a teacher. This year he was able to pick up some extra cash by umpiring baseball games most weekends.

We’re also preparing for the arrival of our first child in October. I can only imagine how our lifestyles and bank accounts will change then!

A group of friends asked us if we wanted to go on a vacation with them this summer to Myrtle Beach and share the cost of renting a condo. To give you an idea of how we’re saving money, picture eight adults in a two-bedroom condo complete with air mattresses. By the way, two of us ladies are seven months pregnant. After taking another look at our budget and managing to save on other expenses, we decided that this would be a nice break for the both of us. While it’s not a romantic suite at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas, it does allow us to get away from our daily grind to relax on the beach. With gas down nearly one dollar from what it was last year, it seemed feasible for us. Who knows how often we’ll get away once the little guy comes into our lives?

This year you’ve heard many people talking about staycations, where they cut out the traveling and boarding expenses, stay at home and find things to do around town. I, too, find this quite appealing and a nice way to stimulate the local economy. If you have the opportunity to take some time off but can’t afford to go far, check out some of the happenings in Akron. The Akron Zoo has been a popular place to visit among my family and friends, and one of my favorite places to visit is Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens. Don’t forget the great arts and culture community that Akron (and the region) has to offer, as well as the Akron Aeros baseball games. Take in a movie, go to the county fair, visit the metro parks or attend one of the festivals downtown.

However, in our case, we wanted to have one last hoorah with our friends (and no kids) in a crowded condo, becoming very familiar with one another. Road trip!

Innovate & Incubate

As a youngster, I remember being glued to our TV when Ted Kennedy was called upon to deliver the eulogy for his slain brother, Senator Robert Kennedy. He said: “Some men see the world as it is, and ask why. Other men see the world as it could be, and say…Why not!”

I work in a building filled with start-up companies, 48 entrepreneurs striving to create transformational products they think have the potential to change the world. Part of my job is to help ensure that their dreams do not become nightmares. In the best of economic times, it is difficult to start a business from scratch; and grow it into a success, even a modest one. The odds against creating another Google are enormous. In fact, most new businesses fail by the end of their first year. I work in an incubator, Akron, Ohio’s Global Business Accelerator. Our city is now called the city of invention. Less than three decades ago, Akron was part of the Industrial Midwest that produced most of the nation’s passenger tires. When production moved south, the smell of carbon black vanished along with 40,000 manufacturing jobs. It became an almost overnight ghost town.

Not so today. The city reinvented itself. When B.F. Goodrich closed its doors in the early 80’s, over 2 ½ million square feet of factory & offices were left vacant. Today, it’s the home of some 100 small businesses, plus the mostly high tech start-ups we house at the Accelerator. It’s been my experience that successful entrepreneurs are doggedly persistent, and have a high pain tolerance… the kind that comes from rejection by lenders, investors, customers, vendors not to mention the sharpest of pain from a neglected spouse and children. To borrow a military metaphor, some entrepreneurs develop “foxhole friends” with other entrepreneurs sharing similar pain within our four walls. It is the other entrepreneurs who understand the dilemma and the pain, because they have walked the same pathway themselves.

What is particularly frustrating in this economy is a nagging sense of impotence. Good companies will not flame and burst in a grand explosion; but rather die slowly from inactivity…. They’ll just run out of gas…like a roadster that coasts to a stop in the middle of the desert, not knowing that he or she was just a few short miles from the finish line.

Had he been able to coast a bit farther to the next hilltop, he could have seen the destination. But he didn’t; and what remains are the nightmares from each unfilled expectation. One of our life sciences companies worries me most. This company has a potentially disruptive technology, one that could change the face of medicine. Long term prospects are really promising; but his angel investors are nearly tapped out; and I worry that, one day, he just will not be able to continue to run his business on “financial fumes.” He will have to try to support a family first and foremost. This technology with the promise to improve health outcomes, lower costs, and add quality of life to millions of Alzheimer’s patients will whither away, like the deserted and out of gas roadster in the desert. This is his day-to-day reality. With our collective help, we hope to help him pull a rabbit out of a hat from any one of a number of potential funding sources; and do it quickly.

My friend, Bill, not only “sees a world that could be, and says why not” he has done something concrete about it. He developed a product and solution that could help millions of patients live longer, healthier lives, while saving our health care system billions of dollars.

Someone once said that if an idea is good enough, you can always find the money to develop it. It has never been more important that right now to test the veracity of that statement.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Economic overbite not easy to straighten

My wife’s father used to joke that if you wanted to see his Porsche, just look at his daughter’s teeth. It was his way of pointing out the high cost of braces, something so many teens need, including my two older sons, and which also aren’t cheap.

My boys’ dental needs are fairly routine, or so says the local dental expert with degrees all over his wall. The bill? “Only $10,000,” he said. Only 10-grand?? Only?? As though it’s a candy bar and they’re on sale so I should take two of them. (photo courtesy: The tooth technician told us not to worry because they have a payment plan, as though that makes the bill easier to chew with a few hundred dollars added as a new side dish to my monthly budget buffet.

Can I afford it? Do I really have a choice?

I think those are the two questions haunting so many in the Akron area right now. Many can’t answer the first question, without responding with the second.

It’s been easy for the media experts to simply tell consumers that they need to ask “Can I afford it” before every purchase. “Just do that,” they say, “and good decisions will follow.”

But when the answer to “Can I afford it” isn’t one of yes/no but rather “Do I really have a choice?” the easy rule of thumb isn’t that easy at all.

With unemployment topping 10 percent and with the ripple effect impacting every local family to some degree, many parents in Akron are wondering if they can afford new school clothes for their kids. Do I really have a choice? With the city’s public school district entering its second year of a mandatory dress code, the answer-to-the-answer is a resounding “Of course not. Just whip out your wallet and buy the kid a few new Polo's and khakis!”

I thought the media expert said just "do this" and "do that" and these financial oasis appear in front of me like water in a desert?

Already many Akron-area parents are shopping at thrift stores – Goodwill, consignment, etc .. – for the first time while hoping hand-me-downs hold out for another year. Some are considering carpools while having never let anyone else drive Suzie or Stevie to class; suddenly, being overprotective has given way to need to save gas money.

A few parents of Akron high school students are already wondering if they’ll be able to get their daughters a new dress to attend Homecoming or the Prom – and it’s only July. Again, if your little princess is now in high school, a special experience marked by events like dances, do you really have a choice?

So while so many experts point to the choices that got us into this financial mess, I hope they’re also looking at the choices we as parents in middle-class America don’t have any more. What’s selectively affordable on paper is tough to swallow when you look into your child’s eyes. Or in my case, my sons’ teeth.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Murder on the block

Two nights ago, three doors down from my house, a man stepped out of his car, took a few steps across the parking lot toward his apartment building and was shot dead.

I pause here now at the curb on the following Sunday morning, on my way to the park for a walk with my wife and daughter and dog, looking at the police line tape that has fallen slack and sways weakly in the breeze, trying to place where the body fell, looking for bullet holes in the wall, hoping not to see a blood stain, wondering why I didn’t hear the shots or sirens and trying to convince myself that things like that don’t happen in my neighborhood, even though it just did.

This has been a violent year in Akron, and especially within the past few weeks, when the news has played against a drumbeat of shootings and beating and stabbings. On the Fourth of July, a family was attacked by a mob of teenagers as they walked home from a fireworks display. Two nights later, a man stabbed his brother to death. Two days after that, a man walking near a park at dusk was shot in the back. The following night, a store owner shot and killed a robber. And then the next night, in this parking lot at the corner where my kids make the turn on their bikes, another man was murdered.

This was the city’s seventh homicide of the year, and the third in the past two weeks. As I write this, police are investigating another. Akron’s not the kind of place where news like this is so common. In a relatively stable city of just over 200,000, most of us feel secure. In Ohio, one of those states that always seems to be watching its back, Akron has reliably ranked among the safest places. When we learn of a violent crime here, we in the middle class scan down through the newspaper paragraphs, looking for the neighborhood, expecting that it happened “there,” in a place we might expect this sort of thing, a bad part of town, a neighborhood we can avoid.
But this year, it all seems, literally and figuratively, closer to home.

So we’ve been looking for different answers, and focusing on the one that seems to be the theme of everything this year.

Is it the economy?

That’s the logical question, the main variable that sets this summer apart from others in the recent past. My wife asked a friend on the police force that question.

Maybe, he said, his uncertain answer revealing a more likely truth: he doesn’t know. None of us knows. Much of the violence appears to carry the familiar back-story of drug dealing and street feuds. The man killed in my neighborhood was charged earlier this year for beating and robbing a man who was to testify against him in a cocaine case. His own sister told the Akron Beacon Journal, “We think his lifestyle probably caught up with him.”

Somehow, I’m supposed to draw comfort from that, but I don’t. This year feels desperate in so many ways that it’s hard to separate one aspect from another. Almost every working person I know has lost a job or taken a buyout or accepted a pay cut or seen an increased workload or just generally sweated out the constant tension of a situation that has left almost no one feeling safe.
The other night I was talking to a friend who has had his pay reduced and hours increased because of staff cuts, and his reaction was that he’s relieved just to have kept his job.

Akron’s unemployment rate is hovering around 10 percent, close to twice what it was a year ago. People don’t have money to spend. Nothing feels secure. No one knows what’s around the corner.

So it’s hard not to extend that anxiety to the worst parts of human nature. Society’s a system and when the entire system is under a strain, it stands to reason that most extreme responses to hard times will be magnified.

Is the economy to blame for this yellow tape stretched across the parking lot?

As we say when we really don’t know: maybe. But even if I knew for sure, I wouldn’t feel any better.