‘They work hard:’ The small county that makes things in a big way

Shelby County has more manufacturing jobs per capita than any other Ohio county

Rural Shelby County — home to fewer than 50,000 residents — boasts more manufacturing jobs per capita than any other Ohio county, a statistic that might surprise observers focused on big factories, marquee population centers or Great Lakes ports.

Shelby County has nearly 12,200 manufacturing jobs, according to the most recent numbers provided by the Dayton Development Coalition.

That means for every Shelby County resident, there’s a quarter of one manufacturing job ― 0.25.

By comparison, Montgomery County, which has a far larger population of about 531,500, has 27,512 manufacturing jobs, resulting in a manufacturing jobs per-capita number of 0.05.

Surprising at first glance? Maybe it shouldn’t be.

“It’s a wonderful accomplishment,” said Phil Gilardi, who co-founded fresh fruit and vegetable processor Freshway Foods in the late 1980s in Sidney. He and his brother Frank sold the company to U.S. Foods in 2016.

Sidney was built for commerce, Gilardi said, pointing to the city’s four interchanges with Interstate 75. It’s tough to put a price tag on speedy access to major transportation arteries, he said.

“The state has put four exits in Sidney, along I-75,” Gilardi said. “That really has worked out pretty well.”

Particularly when one of every two workers employed in Shelby County lives outside the county, according to the Sidney-Shelby Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re able to get our products to probably over 65% of the population in a day’s drive just because we’re located in such a centralized area,” said Cody Lee, president of Everyday Technologies, a Sidney sheet metal contractor.

It’s not just roads, Gilardi and Lee said.

“Work ethic up here is real good,” Gilardi said.

Lee, a Piqua native, considered staying in Cincinnati or moving to a bigger city after getting his marketing degree at the University of Cincinnati.

But Lee said his wife, with her own family in Shelby County, had other ideas.

“My wife was like, ‘Nope, we’re going back to Sidney,’” Lee said.

He is not complaining, and he has never been tempted to move. “It all worked out.”

“We have always been a manufacturing powerhouse,” Lee said. “There are a lot of good people who live and work here.”

Haven for manufacturing

Manufacturing has a long history in and around Sidney, and locals point to an early 19th-century effort to lobby the Ohio General Assembly to build a canal extension through Sidney. The first canal boat arrived in 1837, the Sidney-Shelby Chamber of Commerce says.

Honda of America Manufacturing opened its Anna engine plant in July 1985, producing more than 20.1 million engines in its first 30 years.

At about the same time, also in the mid-1980s, Emerson made what was then its biggest acquisition, paying more than $500 million for Pittsburgh-based Copeland Corp., which was a big Sidney employer and at the time the nation’s biggest producer of compressors for refrigerators and air conditioners.

So Matt Shimp, data and analytics manager for the Dayton Development Coalition, said Shelby County’s modern numbers did not surprise him.

Mathematically, that’s what happens when a relatively modest population is linked to a cluster of big manufacturing employment centers, such as Honda, Emerson, Cargill, Airstream and others.

So many of those Northern, rural Ohio counties have been durable havens for manufacturers, said Julie Sullivan, the coalition’s executive vice president of regional development.

“These are definitely major economic drivers,” Sullivan said.

What makes Shelby County work for companies is not complicated, Honda Anna Engine Plant Lead Rick Riggle said.

“I kind of boil it down to a simple answer: It’s the people and the people in the area,” Riggle said.

There’s a “culture” in and around Shelby County, as he sees it — a willingness to work every day, a dedication to excellence and an awareness of a “strong history.”

“That just continues to this day,” Riggle said.

A story of resiliency

Shelby County suffered during the pandemic, along with most communities.

The county had an unemployment rate of 3.4% before the COVID-19 pandemic, which rose to about 12% in April 2020 and then dropped to about 4% by the end of 2020.

State Worker Advanced Retraining Notices (WARN) of mass layoffs came fast and furious in those days, and Sidney saw its share.

“The resiliency story was really amazing,” said James Hill, executive director of the Sidney-Shelby Economic Partnership.

Credit: Jim Witmer

Credit: Jim Witmer

Today, the story is different. The state announced late in March that SEMCORP Manufacturing USA LLC could create 1,199 full-time positions, with a $73 million annual payroll, in a new Sidney facility.

In an interview with the Dayton Daily News on that topic, Sidney City Manager Andrew Bowsher mentioned almost in passing Shelby County’s position as having the most per capita manufacturing jobs in Ohio.

“They are not ones to toot their own horn, if you will,” said Shannon Joyce Neal, Dayton Development Coalition vice president of strategic communications. “They work hard, support their businesses and don’t brag about their successes.”

Still, in recent interviews, Hill and Bowsher were happy to share a few facts, citing more than $7 billion in shipments from Shelby County, as well as the presence of a Cargill soybean processing plant expected to be the biggest such facility in the world after a $225 million expansion.

The increased capacity will expand Cargill’s U.S. “crush footprint,” helping the company meet growing demand for soy products. The Sidney facility opened in 1978, with the refinery added a decade later.

When the expansion is complete this year, Cargill expects to add about 12 full-time jobs to the 325 currently there, the company said in 2019.

In interviews, Hill and Bowsher also mentioned DRT Power Systems, located on Campbell Road in Sidney, that employs a few hundred and makes crucial parts for SpaceX and NASA.

Bowsher said Sidney and Shelby County officials recently met with officials from the Canadian consulate, looking at places close to Canada where they can expand manufacturing. They expect more announcements.

“It’s hard to keep track of all of these” companies, Hill said 26 minutes into a phone interview. “It’s quite a diverse manufacturing base.”

Top Shelby County employers

Honda: 3,200 employees

Emerson: 1,714 employees.

Airstream: 1,074 employees.

Plastipak Holdings Inc.: 770 employees.

Wilson Health: 793 employees.

NK Parts Industries: 722 employees.

Continental Express Inc.: 630 employees.

Sidney City Schools: 421 employees.

Area Energy & Electric Inc.: 417 employees.

Freshway Foods: 410 employees.

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