Metropolis now?Erie and Ottawa counties now make up the Sandusky Metropolitan Statistical Area, a designation reflecting an integrated labor market

With a population of about 25,000, Sandusky certainly isn’t the smallest of small towns, but when you’re strolling the streets of its downtown, you probably do not feel as if you’re wandering through a metropolis, either. 

Relatedly, we tend to think of a metropolitan area as one centered around a city of at least the size of, say, Cleveland or Detroit. And yet, in the summer, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget and the Bureau of the Census created the Sandusky Metropolitan Statistical Area, consisting of Erie and Ottawa counties, which could help the region attract new employers. 

The new MSA reflects data that the region’s labor and housing markets are highly integrated, according to information provided by Dr. Edward “Ned” Hill, a professor of economic development in the John Glenn College of Public Affairs and the Knowlton College of Architecture’s section on City and Regional Planning at The Ohio State University.

Cedar Point on July 4 (Photo/City of Sandusky)“It shows that a set of employers in Erie County, typically around Sandusky, are drawing employees from this broader North Central Ohio region,” Hill says during a recent phone interview. 

Even before the new designation, Hill says, he had studied the region and observed “there was something different going on in North Central Ohio” – that it had become a well-coordinated labor market in recent years. 

“But rather than being dominated by one big city – because Sandusky is not a big city – it really is a network of smaller centers of employment with people cross-hauling all across the region,” he says.

To that end, the Sandusky MSA is part of the Cleveland-Akron-Lorain-Elyria Consolidated Statistical Area – the Cleveland CSA for short. According to Hill’s information, the aforementioned revision in the summer outlined a Northeast Ohio labor market stretching through large northern sections of counties along Lake Erie, from Ottawa in the west to Ashtabula in the east. 

As a result, according to the same information, the seven-county Toledo CSA is no more, with a three-county MSA taking its place. Hill calls that change potentially “a little touchy” from a political standpoint but sees it as making sense.

“It recognizes the three counties around Toledo as being a tight autonomous labor market,” he says, “and it really kind of re-emphasizes the connection of Toledo, the Toledo metropolitan area, to southeast Michigan and being very dependent on the auto industry.”

The Sandusky area’s change from a micropolitan area to a metropolitan area is a testament to the work being done to create a “destination economy” in the region, says Eric Wobser, chief executive officer of the Greater Sandusky Partnership, a private-sector organization committed to growing the population of Sandusky-Erie County and the region.

Springtime in Sandusky (Photo/City of Sandusky)“Key investments in infrastructure and economic development, as well as joint marketing of the area by Shores & Islands Ohio, has created real traction,” Wobser says in an email. “And the census has confirmed what locals already know: Greater Sandusky is no longer just a destination for a vacation but is also a destination as a place to call home and grow your business.”

The change in designation can be used, Hill says, to appeal to companies looking for a place to expand or set up shop.

“There are many employers that will not put a plant in a place where the labor market is too small,” he says.

Is it, then, too pie-in-the-sky to think this could, in the next several years, lead to numerous manufacturing plants being built in Erie and Ottawa counties?

“It may be more than several plants,” Hill says. “It could be service centers to the tourism industry.

“It’s a way of portraying the region. I mean, that’s one of the reasons I’m excited about greater Sandusky.”

Wobser is ready to work on that more appealing portrayal.

“Sandusky's new status as a metropolitan region is a sign of scale and momentum,” he says in an email. “It demonstrates to companies considering investing that our region has its own center of gravity and that they will be able to tap into a metropolitan workforce to support their growth. 

“Sandusky can now tout itself as offering the best of both worlds: the quality of life of America's Best Coastal Small Town combined with the opportunities of a metropolitan region with close proximity to even larger metros including Cleveland, Toledo, and Columbus.”

All of this excitement comes despite projections, also provided by Hill, suggesting that over the next 30 years, the counties in the North Central Ohio labor market could lose between 15 and 22 percent of their populations.

“It’s projection – it’s not destiny,” he says. “By having this region market  itself as being a coherent, competitive economic region and understanding the shared assets across this four- to eight-county region, you can start addressing and turning around that decline.”

In fact, Hill says he’s found himself pushing back against students at OSU who believe the future of the state revolves around the Columbus area.

“The fact is, no, North Central Ohio can make its own future by understanding it’s got assets and a labor market that’s much bigger and much stronger than one county on its own looks like.”