Leaders from county's business, nonprofit and government sectors are working together to reverse the county's population loss and to attract more jobs and residents.

In three years, Stark County's population is expected to dip below 370,000 for the first time since the 1990s.

Research compiled by the state shows that in 2020 — the year Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village is scheduled to open and make the region a national attraction — Stark County will have lost 5,400 residents since 2016.

But that doesn't have to be what happens.  

Leaders from the county's business, nonprofit and government sectors have started working together to reverse the county's population loss and to attract more jobs and residents.

The informal board, called the Stark Civic Group, commissioned a study through the Stark Community Foundation to collect data about Stark County and to propose solutions to improve its economic outlook.

The resulting "Strengthening Stark" report, released publicly today, shows Stark County is on a slow decline and is becoming smaller, older and poorer. To change that trajectory, the report says, leaders need to focus on two broad goals: Accelerating economic growth and increasing access to opportunity. The report calls for completion of a countywide, multi-agency economic plan and a bigger investment in economic development, and it stresses the importance of collaboration among organizations moving forward.

"Unfortunately, Stark County is on a slight down escalator," said Civic Collaboration Consultants President Chris Thompson, who prepared the report. "It's going to take a lot of work to get off of it."

Smaller, older, poorer

In 2000, Stark County's population was more than 378,000 and only a few hundred people away from its all-time high of nearly 379,000 in 1980.

By 2016, however, the county had lost 4,500 residents. The pace of decline is expected to increase, with state projections putting the county's 2020 population at about 368,000.

The Strengthening Stark report says the anticipated loss of people will be made worse by the county's aging population. As the overall population has dropped, the median age has risen. From 2000 to 2016, the number of people age 45 or older in Stark County increased by nearly 18 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The aging population also is reflected in the county's housing stock: Most of the homes in the county were built before 1980.

An older, smaller population is a problem, the report says, because it means Stark County has a dwindling tax base, which means fewer dollars to pay for infrastructure improvements and other government services.  

"If the demographic and income trends continue, they will put fiscal strain on every community in the county," the report reads.

Stark County also lags behind other communities in wealth. While the average annual income here has risen steadily since 2000, it still is lower than the average income in neighboring Summit County and in the state of Ohio, state data show.

Also, a higher percentage of families and individuals in Stark County lived at or below the poverty level in 2015 than did in 2010, according to census data.

Maria Heege, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Stark County and a member of the Stark Civic Group, sees the increased phone calls for services. Part of her organization's strategic plan — completed apart from the work of the Stark Civic Group — highlights the need to address the root causes of poverty and work collaboratively with others. Giving people the tools to be self-sufficient and earn a living wage is a start, she said.

"To me, it's about increasing the skills and increasing their income, and that comes from economic development. Then some of those issues are taken care of," she said.

Growth and opportunity

The Strengthening Stark report offers two major recommendations to correct the county's trend of becoming smaller, older and poorer: Stark needs to speed up economic growth and increase access to profitable employment opportunities for the people who live here.

Suggestions include creating jobs in growing industries, focusing job growth in areas where many jobs already exist, raising more money to support economic development initiatives and providing more programs for young or start-up companies.

Much of the work will be spelled out in an upcoming economic development plan.Stark Community Foundation is in the process of raising more than $100,000 in private dollars to pay for consulting to draft the document, and the Stark Development Board, led by Ray Hexamer, will work with the consultant to write a plan that is shared among economic development groups in the county. The Strengthening Stark report is designed to be a framework for more specific steps that will be spelled out in the upcoming plan. 

"I just think that this is exciting, because once you realize what you're dealing with, you can start to do something about it," Hexamer said.

Thompson, who prepared the report, said the biggest challenges for the organizations carrying out the recommendations will be learning to work together to tackle the problem and building and sustaining momentum. Even though the planning process is in its early stages, seeing action and outcomes will get people excited about the future.

"The reality is the work has just begun," he said.

Reach Alison at 330-580-8312 or alison.matas@cantonrep.com.

On Twitter: @amatasREP