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Appalachian Ohio moving fast toward high-tech future

Geoff and Michelle Greenfield of Third Sun Solar and Wind Power in Athens.
Geoff and Michelle Greenfield of Third Sun Solar and Wind Power in Athens.

Geoff Greenfield is an example of the type of entrepreneur who is becoming the modern face of the economy in Appalachian Ohio.

As founder and president of Third Sun Solar and Wind Power in Athens, Greenfield is part of a thriving alternative energy industry that is making its home in Athens County.

Third Sun was ranked 21st among Ohio's fastest growing companies by Inc. magazine in 2009 due to its three-year growth rate of 390 percent. It was 32nd nationwide among all energy companies.

Greenfield started the company in 1997 because of his commitment to alternative energy sources.  But in the last few years, interest in green energy has spiked new opportunities that have helped him grow his business substantially.

"I had no idea  back then that renewables would be the huge thing it is today," he says.  "For me it was just a way to combine my skills with a passion for clean energy."

Third Sun is one of about a dozen green energy businesses that have made their home in the area, and they are part of a wave of high- tech entrepreneurship that is helping to create and sustain job growth in a region that once depended almost solely on its natural resources to fuel the economy.

From Youngstown in the northern end of the region, to Marietta in the south, high tech start-up businesses are growing and thriving with the help of local higher education and a host of private venture firms dedicated to economic success for young companies.

As additional proof of the region's business appeal, Entrepreneur magazine named Youngstown as one of the top 10 cities in the U.S. to start a business in 2009.

David Wilhelm, who grew up in Athens and is a founding partner of Adena Ventures, a venture capital fund targeting central Appalachia, says change is afoot in this region and economic diversity is the result.

"The boom and bust nature of an economy based on resource extraction is the area's history," says Wilhelm, who is a graduate of Ohio University. "The iron industry was critical in the 19th century and after that it was coal extraction.  Any industry based on resource extraction eventually fades away.

"We wanted to know what we could do to create sustainable growth where wealth is shared.  The way to do this is through entrepreneurial capacity."

Adena, which currently includes eight Appalachian companies in its portfolio, is part of a network of support that young companies can tap into to help them achieve their goals, and includes the Ohio University Innovation Center, TechGROWTH Ohio , East Central Ohio Tech Angel Fund, JumpStart, TechColumbus, and CincyTech.

Jennifer Simon, director of the Innovation Center at OU, says that through the efforts of these organizations and greater awareness of the natural benefits of locating a business in the region, such as low cost of operation, loyal workforce, and quality of life, the gap is closing between the metro areas of the state and rural Appalachia.

"You've got many pockets of strength throughout the region," says Simon, citing specific industries that have sprung up in certain counties, such as biomedical and advanced and alternative energy in Athens County, agri-tech in Pike County, polymers and temperature control technology in Washington County and software development in Mahoning County.

Sara Marrs, marketing and communications coordinator for the Athens County Economic Development Council says the region's workforce has always been an asset for businesses.

"We have a very rich labor force. They're very hard working because they've had to be," says Marrs, who says that the local economy is definitely bringing new employment opportunities.

"Slow and steady progress is being made in this area," she says.  "At this point in time we're more equal with the rest of the state. Our goal is to add as many high-quality jobs as we can get."

Ohio River Transportation

Another natural asset for communities like Marietta is the Ohio River. As fuel prices climb in the future, the river may become a more attractive way to ship freight long distances. Mike Jacoby, director of the Southeast Ohio Port Authority, says Marietta could become an important inland shipping port.

Routing container shipments up large rivers like the Mississippi to the Ohio from coastal deep water ports such as New Orleans may be the way of the future as shipping by truck or even train becomes more costly, says Jacoby.

Ohio's proximity to 60 percent of the United States and most of Canada makes it a natural choice for a large inland port and Jacoby says Marietta, located on the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers, is poised to take advantage of this.

"We know fuel prices will rise again. The Panama Canal is being widened and a new container port was just put in at Mobile, Alabama. We think we're a prime location for an inland port," he says.

Once shipments come off the river, there are plenty of highways to access, he adds, with major interstate and smaller state routes expanded and ready for increased traffic.

The most important resource, however, is still the people who make their home in this part of the state, says Jacoby.

"There's a tradition of self-reliance here.  These are hard-working people who are level-headed. I do think there's truly an entrepreneurial spirit."

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