Most people when they hear of Sandusky think Cedar Point: the amusement park that has been bringing millions of people to Northern Ohio for 140 years. Despite its tourism, the city is on a roller coaster of its own. As Changing Gears kicks off this week, we also start a series about Sandusky, a place we’ll follow as it wrestles with the problems affecting the whole region.
Photos: Adee Braun
There’s only one place to be on a Saturday night in September. As the Sandusky Central Catholic marching band plays the fight song, parents and kids are eating burgers and brats outside a union hall. It’s traditional American tailgating before the game against Mapleton.
It’s drizzling, and some are checking the score of the Ohio State game in the background.
On one side of the street is Sandusky High School. On the other: a massive automotive bearings plant that was once part of GM. Not long ago, you could graduate, walk across the street and get a job there or at one of the other auto plants, paper-mills, or foundries in town.
Forty-one year old Tamara Humphrey who’s here to cheer on her teenager remembers those days.
“At one time we had a Ford plant, a GM plant, and a Chrysler plant operating here in Sandusky and various other plants. And, that’s really changed,” she said.
Humphrey’s friends, Dawn and Paul Diebold, represent what’s happened in Sandusky.
“I graduated, I was at Prepared Foods. They closed down. Then I was at Jansie Foundry. They closed down. Then Sandusky Plastics. That was my longest job-what—14 years. Then they closed down. Georgia Pacific bought ‘em out. Then I was at Ford for three years as a temp,” Paul Diebold said.
He’s been looking for work for a year. His wife, Dawn, who worked at a real estate title company, was laid off two years ago. Her unemployment just ran out, so the family is living on $269 a week.
“I thought I’d be at my job forever. Retire at 30 years. Always thought you could get in at Ford or GM,” Dawn Diebold said.
That’s a surprise to people who think everyone in town works for Cedar Point.
The park hires thousands of temporary workers during the summers, but the rest of the year, it’s only a small part of this working class city’s economy. Just 250 employees work there year-round, about as many as in a big box store.
Away, from the rollercoasters, downtown has nothing in common with the bustling amusement park. Columbus Avenue has an ACME barber shop and a theater built in the Vaudeville-era. But there are also whole city blocks with vacant buildings begging for redevelopment.
A Sandusky Optimist
That decline didn’t deter Tamara Humphrey’s brother, Jeff Smith.
He and his business partner Kenny Jordan run Sandusky Hardware. It’s the kind of neighborhood shop where people come in just to talk sports or politics. You’d think it’s been there generations, but it just opened in April.
“We weren’t planning on the hardware store,” Smith said. “It was just something that Kenny and I saw a need for and we decided: let’s give this a try.”
Smith is 37 and in those years he’s been a Marine, a pipefitter, a restaurant-owner, and now there’s the hardware store. He’s an optimist who believes it’s the regular people and business owners who will bring prosperity to their towns and the country. And, he wants the rest of Sandusky to get on board.
“It seemed like there were just so many people who were unhappy,” he said. “People weren’t proud of where they lived anymore.”
So, Smith created Sandusky Proud which promotes anything that makes people feel good about living there. He’ll even hand out lawn signs to homeowners who do a particularly nice job of keeping up their houses. And, he created a landlord association to help combat the crime and poverty in the transient rental population.
“If we’re upset about the way people feel about our city, maybe now’s the time we should put our money where our mouth is or if we can talk the talk, we should walk the walk,” Smith said.
That’s despite seeing paper mills close, auto plants shrink, and an unemployment rate that topped 14 percent earlier this year. He’d rather focus on the new restaurants opening. He thinks Sandusky can come back.
Crime and Community
It’s parents’ night and the players stop for photos with their families. An announcer calls out the names: “#68 Junior Joe Youskievicz. Son of Kevin and Julie Youskievicz.”
Kevin Youskievicz has been a cop in Sandusky nearly 20 years, and he says it’s still a good old American town.
“This is a city where you can still walk the streets at night time,” he said. “You can still raise a family in the city.”
But this summer was unusual. There was a crime wave. Shootings, once rare, were common. He says it felt like every day and many think the economy is to blame.
As he watches his son’s team score the first touchdown, Kevin Youskievicz knows the kids on this field will no longer be able to walk across the street for good jobs. They’ll have to find a new path.
“We have a generation of kids around here who still want that job their parents had,” Youskievicz said. “That $25/hr assembly job and it’s not there. And, you’re going to start off flipping burgers and waiting tables and things like that. And, i think kids see how their parents were and say ‘I want that lifestyle’ but realize that was a different time back then.”
Tamara Humphrey says the best option for these Sandusky kids is a college education, something that wasn’t necessary for her generation.
“And, I hope they’ll find a job here when they finish, but my doubts are that it will be challenging for them to do that,” Humphrey said.
We’ll be returning to Sandusky in the coming months.