WASHINGTON COUNTY, Ohio — The oldest county in Ohio was founded two years before the other Washington — the nation’s capital.
Back then, the pioneers placed their hopes in a rich swath of unsettled land.
Now, residents are staking their futures on natural gas. And that has led many of them, including Bob Rauch, owner of the Farson Street Car Wash and the Main Street Car Wash in Belpre, to invest hope in the nation’s 45th president.
“I’m not tired of winning,” Rauch says, invoking a signature line from President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, his small office at the car wash adorned with John Deere memorabilia and a “Trump/Pence” bumper sticker affixed to a filing cabinet.
He says his life has improved under Trump, who delivered his State of the Union address Tuesday. “I just wish I had more money to put in the market,” Rauch says.
His opinion is in sharp contrast to that of former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat who represented the county in Congress from 1993 to 1995 and again from 1997 to 2007. Strickland said the president has been “an utter failure” when it comes to bringing jobs to the region.
“Trump certainly hasn’t done anything I can see that’s been helpful,” he said.
Trump’s speech addressed not only members of Congress and invited guests in the U.S. Capitol, but the roughly 60,000 residents of Washington County — some 330 miles away on the eastern border of Ohio.
It’s a county with high hopes that a surfeit of natural gas below the ground holds an economic promise yet to be delivered, but one that seems shielded from some of the harsher economic conditions of the surrounding Appalachian region, which is buoyed in some corners by a stubborn optimism that the best times are ahead.
“It might never be better than it is right now,” says the executive director of the Southeastern Ohio Port Authority, Andy Kuhn.
Still, nearly 16 percent of the population lives in poverty — a statistic that hasn’t changed beyond a percentage point or two since 2010.
By comparison, the national poverty rate is about 11.8 percent — the lowest rate since 2001.
It could be far worse. Just to the west, in Morgan County, the poverty level is 21.5 percent. In neighboring Athens County, it’s 30 percent.
“Living here has been an education,” says Matt Young, a professor of history at Marietta College who moved from New York. “Because you just begin to see how intractable poverty is.”
Yet plenty of Trump supporters can point to other economic indicators to demonstrate they’ve thrived during his administration.
As of November 2019, the unemployment rate in Washington County was 5.2 percent — lower than most of its immediate Appalachian neighbors, but higher than the national unemployment rate of 3.5 percent. That’s a vast improvement over 2010, when the unemployment rate hovered at 9.6 percent, and 2016, when the rate was 7 percent.
In 2017, the county had 21.8 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 — a higher rate than its neighbors, but far lower than the southwest corner of the state, where Montgomery County, for example, saw 56.5 deaths per 100,000 people during that time. The national average that year was 19.8 deaths per 100,000.
“This area is largely insulated,” says Kuhn, who credits the diverse industry base for shielding the county from tougher conditions. “We do not get the highest of the highs and do not get the lowest of the lows.”
Despite that, there’s a stubborn sense of optimism about the economy, and that’s in large part because of new drilling technologies that have unlocked the eastern part of the state’s vast natural gas reserves.
Boom to Boomlet
Added together, the region comprised of eastern Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania is the nation’s largest producer of natural gas, according to the Energy Information Administration. When Washington County began to unlock those reserves in 2011, what followed was a mini-economic boom, well timed to the end of the recession.
Along I-77, a crop of new hotels sprung up, and parking lots became jammed with out-of-state license plates. Austin Rehl, a dentist in the county, opened an RV park to accommodate the glut of new workers. All 25 spots filled quickly.
“There was a period of time when you couldn’t get into the county recorder’s office because of all the land agents,” says David Brightbill, executive director of Washington-Morgan Community Action, which provides services to at-risk communities in two counties. “They literally put desks in the hallway because people were doing title searches on ground being leased.”
Then came a global glut in gas supplies. By 2015, prices had dropped from $5.13 per 1,000 cubic feet to $3.93 per 1,000 cubic feet. That RV park? Now only six spots are occupied.
What appeared to be an explosion of progress was only a boomlet.
Still, many in the community have not given up hope.
In Marietta, a group of businessmen involved in the local oil and gas industry is actively working to bring manufacturing jobs to the region. They argue natural gas molecules are in everything from the clothes we wear to the water bottles we drink from to the interiors of the cars we drive and that manufacturers who come to the region would save millions that they’d otherwise spend transporting that gas from elsewhere.
“If we can get these plants, we’ll be creating jobs when we’re all gone,” says Jerry James, a local oil developer and co-founder of Shale Crescent USA, a nonprofit economic development organization focused on the natural gas industry.
James credits Trump’s energy policies — including a proposal to streamline the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires pipelines, power facilities, highways and other infrastructure projects to be reviewed for environmental impact — as game-changers for gas producers. Trump’s proposal would ease restrictions for those who want to build infrastructure but has been criticized by environmentalists as weakening protections.
“These were regulations that would’ve put us out of business,” says James. “And all of a sudden when Trump came in, the direction went the other way.”
Trump has reminded the region of his promises on energy, telling a gas conference in Pittsburgh in October that he has kept his promise to “unleash American energy like never before.”
Ups and Downs
Brian and Christy Chavez were optimistic enough about the potential of natural gas that in 2008 they left their jobs at Intel in Albuquerque, N.M., to take over Christy’s parents’ oil and gas company, a business run out of her parents’ garage.
More than a decade later, they’re still here.
They understand there are booms and busts, but Trump’s embrace of deregulation has sparked their hopefulness.
Christy Chavez describes the Obama administration’s approach to energy regulation as “stifling.” Now, she says, it’s “like a cloud’s been lifted.”
“You’re not waiting for the next barrier to be put up in front of you,” Brian Chavez says.
Their optimism is not universal.
“They keep saying the jobs are coming back,” says Katie McGlynn, a former Marietta city councilwoman who remains active in Democratic politics. She watched one of her sons struggle for years to find a job, only to move about 120 miles away to Columbus. “And they’re not coming back.”
McGlynn spoke Jan. 14 after a monthly brown-bag lunch held at the Washington County Democratic headquarters, a wood-paneled room where a framed picture of Jack and Bobby Kennedy hangs on the wall.
Democrats here know this is Trump Country — Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton with 68.4 percent of the vote in 2016, with traditionally Democratic union members switching to Trump, giving him a far more decisive win than other recent Republican presidential candidates.
Despite the county’s Republican leanings, as recently as 2010 it was represented by a Democrat in Congress. In 2010, however, Rep. Bill Johnson, a Republican and ardent Trump supporter, won the seat decisively. He’s easily held onto the seat ever since.
Democrats say the region has been willing to accept dirtier air and water as a tradeoff for economic opportunity that’s still falling short.
“This area, like a lot of the U.S., relied on manufacturing jobs and kind of ignored the lack of regulations because they provide jobs,” says Jim Rapp, a Democrat who laments the low pay some of those jobs bring. One manufacturer, he says, offers $12 an hour.
“My first job in 1975, before college, was $9.75 an hour, and that was 50 years ago,” he says. “I just don’t know how someone expects a family to live on $12 an hour.”
While oil and gas dominate the conversation here, they are far from the only industry that is prey to the foibles of the market.
On a gravel road not far from Marietta, Bob, John and Gale Hartline farm a bucolic, rolling swath of land despite steady worries about its future.
They lease some of their land for natural gas, but that’s not their focus. As dairy farmers, they worry about the bankruptcies of both Borden Dairy Co. and Dean Foods and the future of their industry in a world where large factory farms have begun to dominate, and where soy and almond milk present a very real economic threat.
While critics have blamed Trump’s trade wars for many of the woes of the dairy industry and agriculture nationwide, the Hartlines focus strictly on the granular: The price of milk. The bankruptcies. Neighbors leaving the business.
They say they are not particularly political. For them, the State of the Union isn’t about politics, or Congress, or Donald Trump.
It’s about hanging on, like they and others in Washington County always have.
“It’s a different world than when we started,” says Bob Hartline.