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Ohio Highway 32: A Road of Unintended Consequences

There are always dark counterpoints to golden dreams.

Fri November 04, 2016 - Midwest Edition #23

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
The road, stitched together from a patchwork of smaller roads starting in the late-1960s, was supposed to be a path from despair to hope, a game-changer for the impoverished region of Appalachian Ohio.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia. The road, stitched together from a patchwork of smaller roads starting in the late-1960s, was supposed to be a path from despair to hope, a game-changer for the impoverished region of Appalachian Ohio.

CINCINNATI (AP) Ask Meeka Mohler about her historical photos of Jim Rhodes, and she'll wave you toward the back of Michael's Ice Cream.

There, Rhodes' face stares out of old newspaper articles marking the one-time Ohio governor's visits back to his hometown of Jackson and the shop, where he got his first job working for Mohler's great-grandfather.

Nothing fancy. “He worked here cranking the peanut roaster,' she said.

Just outside Jackson stands another Rhodes legacy, Ohio Highway 32. It's a four-lane road he championed that now bears his name — the James A. Rhodes Appalachian Highway.

The road, stitched together from a patchwork of smaller roads starting in the late-1960s, was supposed to be a path from despair to hope, a game-changer for the impoverished region of Appalachian Ohio. Some grumbled it was expensive and pointless — a highway to nowhere.

But it is now a four-lane fixture, accepted with a mixture of optimism and fatalism, yet easily taken for granted. The highway, which stretches from Cincinnati to the West Virginia border, is a well-suited symbol for a region by turns forward-thinking but traditional, big-hearted but insular.

These days, tourists gawk their way down the scenic highway. Local officials hawk its value to prospective employers. Some companies in the area thrive due to the road, and it is a way for many local workers to get to their sometimes-distant jobs. For others, it is the fast lane to the big cities over the horizon. Some use the highway to leave for good.

Roads might seem like bland public works projects, made of concrete, asphalt, gravel and dirt. But they are not. No other type of construction so mirrors the human existence, with all its paradoxes. No other piece of civil engineering so binds potential with the constraints of place.

The Rhoden family murders in April, committed just off the Appalachian Highway in the Pike County region, brought the world's attention to this place and to this highway, the likely escape route for the killers.

There are always dark counterpoints to golden dreams.

Richard Vedder is still a pessimist about the Appalachian Highway.

In 2000, the long-time Ohio University economics professor told a reporter the road was probably the “most desolate in Ohio' and had done little to develop the area's economy. When recently reminded of his comments, he reviewed some economic data, and said he still believes what he said then.

“I can't say the highway achieved all the lofty hopes and expectations of the people who promoted it from the beginning,' he said.

The counties along the highway still have per capita median incomes below the state average of $48,000 a year and well under the national average of $52,000. With a few exceptions, little has changed since 2000, he said.

“These are counties that even today are 20 to 35 percent below the national average for income,' he said. “The gap is big. The gap is not narrowing.'

Vedder isn't the first to view the highway with disdain. While nobody organized to oppose the project, plenty of people had things to say, said Jim Henry, a historian of Pike County who writes columns in the Pike County News Watchman about the area's history.

“The farmers and local people didn't think there'd be any need for it,' he said. “They thought it was just a waste of money.'

But Blaine Beekman had something to say about that. He was on the local committee that helped promote the road. As an Appalachian Highway true believer, the now-Pike County commissioner remains convinced the highway was a boon.

“I know Dick Vedder,' he said. “Here's a college professor with a lot of stats, looking and hoping to bring people from $30,000 a year to maybe $50,000 a year. We want to make sure we're keeping the $30,000 jobs.

“I think it's a difference in outlook.'

The area's truck-reliant timber industry depends on the road, Beekman said. And the junction of U.S. 23 and the Appalachian Highway is a central part of the pitch for interested businesses.

Beekman pointed to the new Rural King farm supply store and distribution center that opened recently in Waverly. The highway makes it easy for people from all over the area to work and shop further away.

Even Vedder, who lives to the east in Athens, acknowledges the highway opened up a larger pool of workers for a friend of his who runs a factory in Jackson, which is experiencing a strong local economy compared to the larger region.

With the highway in place, people in Appalachian Ohio can work the next county over, or drive to Athens or Cincinnati for work or recreation — time-consuming or impossible before the highway was built.

“Cincinnati was almost off the radar to that point, until this came through,' Beekman said. “Now, it's no big deal. You go to Mount Orab, you have Skyline Chili and you drive back home. You spend an hour and it's a nice drive.'

Kenny Bobst is in the business of running a hardware store. That's what it says on the sign outside anyway — Beaver Valley Hardware in Beaver. But slip inside, and just off to the side of his front counter is the real action — at a table with a mismatched set of chairs around it, a newspaper thrown over the top.

This is where all the problems of the world are solved, daily. Or something like that. Lately, the old-timers who show up talk a lot of politics. Nothing seems to be getting solved on that front. But they take turns buying doughnuts on Fridays — a bipartisan gesture almost too good for Congress.

“It's a place to loaf,' Bobst said from behind the counter, between sales. “You've got to have a place to loaf in all these small towns.'

Bobst retired in 2000 as Pike County supervisor for the Ohio Department of Transportation after a 29-year career. He knows the county's roads, and now life as a small businessman. He, too, is pessimistic about the good the highway brought to the region.

“It was supposed to have developed the community,' he said. “It didn't.'

But you can find meeting places like Bobst's everywhere in the region if you just ask around, both along the Appalachian Highway and just off to the sides.

Stop in the McDonald's just outside of Peebles in Adams County, a few miles from the Rhoden properties. It's not just a place to get a Big Mac. Inside, you might see a birthday party in progress, or a few older folks talking over coffee.

Drive east into Pike County and stop at Tom's Drive Thru & Grocery. Inside the store, past shelves of food, is a place where folks sit and talk, with hot food made nearby.

People might take it for granted, but the highway is far more than just a road, said Beekman, the Pike County commissioner.

In his eyes, the highway created an invisible shift. It simultaneously opened up the region and bound the isolated communities together.

As county commissioner, he's on the Ohio Valley Regional Development Commission, where county officials can meet together and act as one regarding spending in the region.

“All kinds of things have branched out,' he said. “It's not just the highway, Route 32. It's these other things, the infrastructure we've gained.'

Back in Jackson, the photos in Michael's Ice Cream don't lie. Jim Rhodes never forgot Jackson or his first job.

There he is in 1966 as governor, scooping up peanuts. There he is celebrating his 80th birthday party by serving ice cream cones in 1989.

“Any man must hold deep respect for his roots. These are my roots,' he said then, as quoted in a news article on the wall.

The blue, metal peanut roaster he cranked sits in the corner of the front window. It still works, but it's powered by electricity now, not by a governor in the making.

Jackson hasn't forgotten Rhodes, either — the local boy who made good. A statue of the four-term governor stands tall and confident, mid-stride with a briefcase, across Main Street from Michael's Ice Cream, next to the old county courthouse. It was dedicated in 2013. A plaza surrounds the statue, with plaques listing Rhodes' accomplishments, including the Appalachian Highway.

Jackson is thriving as of late, with several big employers and a retail corridor along the thoroughfare stretching from the Appalachian Highway on one side of town into Jackson's historic downtown.

But the highway's construction decades ago brought other, less happy consequences.

It diverted traffic away from the downtown, visiting swift suffering upon shops at the core of the county seat. It was a blow that hit Rhodes' first employer hard.

“It nearly killed our business,' Mohler said.

But folks in Jackson never blamed Rhodes for how the highway throttled downtown, she said.

They had a more resigned way of looking at it: Progress.

Every road gets you somewhere else. Not every road gets you where you want to go.

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