Margaret Watters

Last Friday, Oxford Economic Development Director Alan Kyger sat in his office, drumming his fingers on the gray plastic desk while he patiently explained the difficulties of attracting big national merchants to Oxford amid an economic downturn and Miami University layoffs.

Oxford’s poverty rate is 13.4 percent, high above Ohio’s 7.8 percent average, according to the 2000 Census. Kyger said the data doesn’t reflect most students’ readily available disposable incomes, which have made some business unexpected profitable.

“(Buffalo Wild Wings) and Starbucks had to be dragged into town-literally dragged into town,” Kyger said. “And from what I understand, Oxford’s are some of their best stores.”

Keeping the giants away leaves Oxford reliant on it’s big four employers-Miami University, McCullough Hyde, Square D manufacturing company and the Talawanda School District, according to Kyger.

According to the City of Oxford’s Web site, Miami is the largest employer in town, with more than 3,800 people on payroll.

The university’s announcement of staff layoffs, employee retirement package buyout and hiring freeze has many residents worried about how intertwined the two communities continue to be.

“I have a lot of strong feelings about Dr. Hodge and why he has to make these cutbacks but of course my heart is with these people who may not have jobs,” Oxford resident Sue Killy said. “I don’t think we’ve hit the bottom yet, I’m afraid things are going to get worse and we really need to look out for one another and share what we have. It’s a scary time.”

Killy said she’s seen less people in uptown shops, a reflection of family’s tightening budgets. Kyger said Miami’s cutbacks and economic re-shuffle won’t really be felt uptown until later in the year.

“Truly we feel whatever effect there (is will) be felt six months to one year after events take place,” Kyger said. “It’s still hard to gauge what the true effect of Miami’s downturn is going to be.”

Oxford Community Choice Food Pantry Manager Mike Johnson has already noticed more pantry visitors since the opening a year and a half ago.

“We have seen, since we opened in July of 2007, a large increase in the number of people who are using the pantry.” Johnson said. “Due to the economic situation, we’re seeing more and more each month of first-time users who have lost their jobs. That is increasing at a fairly rapid rate.”

Johnson said that since opening, what started with 50 to 70 households being served has jumped to 360. He said there is an additional five to 10 families every month.

Kyger said he isn’t worried about Oxford’s economy and is thankful the city didn’t over-expand when the economy was good. He said Oxford has seen worse and during his first years on city council in the 1980s, the city was struggling.

“Before (an income tax raise) was passed, the city was at the point where it couldn’t resurface roads-it was under a bind,” Kyger said. “The next time a fire truck was due to be replaced the question was how we were going to do that.”

The economy is changing city council agendas and city budgets, especially since a November land dispute and December land purchase depleted the city of it’s savings account.

Kyger said the city had been placing $300,000 to $400,000 of budget surplus in an internal savings account for the past eight years to go toward a new city courthouse and police department. Nothing has been deposited into the account for two years.

“The budgets are tighter,” Kyger said. “But on some things … well, let’s wait and see how things look after six months.”

City council projects, like a technology park and data center, have also halted. The park, to be built outside town, was designed to provide jobs for Miami professor’s spouses. At one point, Kyger said, the university was looking at investing in the project as a data center for the university, but pulled out due to budgetary concerns.

While the city is putting a hold on renovation and expansion plans, the Oxford Community Choice Food Pantry is full steam ahead. The pantry’s explosion of donations has allowed it to share food with neighboring Butler County organizations. Johnson said he is thrilled with the community support.

“The community-both Oxford residents and Miami University students have showed tremendous generosity,” Johnson said. “We’re so fortunate to be in this particular location.”

Oxford’s food pantry differs from Butler County’s 24 other food pantries by giving visitors a shopping assistant and making the experience as close to a grocery store as possible. Johnson said that by giving people a choice, it helps maintain dignity-especially for first-time users.

“There are more and more families who are reluctant to come to the pantry, who are probably eligible, but in terms of the social stigma are reluctant to come,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to create an atmosphere for individuals and households that says we understand their situation, that the community understands and wants to support them.”

Johnson hopes to implement a data collecting system in the coming years to help better direct the pantry’s efforts. Johnson’s long-term vision includes the creation of a full service center for Oxford residents to help combat the rising costs and strains of prescription drugs.

Johnson said he looks to instill hope in the families and volunteers that visit the pantry through difficult times and sees the room for innovation in his increasingly demanding work.

“It’s like that expression,” Johnson said. “‘If you always do what you always did, then you get what you always got.'”