Addiction specialists, business leaders, law enforcement officials and other community members gathered around tables at Shawnee State University to talk about two big challenges in Scioto County, Ohio: a shrinking economy and a growing addiction crisis.
The Appalachian Regional Commission brought them together as part of a listening tour to learn about connections between addiction recovery and economic recovery.
Several speakers pointed out how the opioid epidemic has left employers with job openings and a workforce unprepared to fill them.
“There’s a problem in making sure that the workforce is ready, ready with soft skills, ready with hard skills, ready just psychologically,” ARC Communication Director Wendy Wasserman said. “Employers are spooked. They don’t know how to engage and make the best of workers [in recovery] who are eager and ready to go back to work.”
The county seat, Portsmouth, lies along the Ohio River in the state’s southeastern corner and has long been at the epicenter of the opioid epidemic. State data show the county ranked 10th in the state for fatal drug overdose rates from 2012-2017. And Scioto County regularly ranks in the top ten for highest unemployment in the state.
When author and journalist Sam Quinones was writing his book about the opioid crisis, “Dreamland,” he chose Portsmouth as the country’s key example of how economic decline fueled the rise of opiate addiction in the 1990s.
“The factories and shops on Chillicothe Street were replaced by [pain management clinics], which found cheap space in the town’s abandoned buildings,” he wrote. “Pill mills were about the only locally owned businesses to open.”
Quinones tracked the origins of what is now a national epidemic to Portsmouth and other struggling towns in the region.
“Portsmouth…acted like the canaries in those now-shuttered Appalachian coal mines,” he wrote. “Just no one in the country listened much.”
Today officials are listening to Portsmouth.
The ARC took what it learned from the listening tour and created a Substance Abuse Advisory Council to suggest ways the federal organization can help.
The problem requires many solutions, and ARC Federal Co-Chair Tim Thomas believes the people they spoke with will find those solutions.
“If a problem exists in a community, ultimately, the solution to that problem will be found in the same community,” he said.
Those working on addiction and economic recovery in Scioto County believe they can both prepare workers in recovery and help employers. Two programs aim to build up people struggling with addiction while rebuilding the local economy.
Aspiring entrepreneurs pitched business ideas to seasoned entrepreneurs at the recent TechStars Startup Weekend Portsmouth.
Teams workshopped a wedding planning business, a local farm-to-table restaurant, a video game cafe, and other plans into full-fledged business models.
The Kricker Innovation Hub at Shawnee State played host to the weekend-long event, and encourages an entrepreneurial community through events like these.
The organization sees a role for itself in assisting the business-minded people who are also in recovery from addiction to jumpstart their ideas.
“People who are starting businesses and are in the recovery community will need resources, perhaps more so than the general public,” Program Director David Kilroy said. “We can leverage this infrastructure.”
Thanks in part to its association with the LIGHTS Regional Innovation program and other partnerships, members of the hub have access to high-speed internet, an immersive technology lab, mentors, and other resources to help bring their product or business idea to market.
Those in the recovery process can apply the skills they learned in treatment, such as discipline, organization, and independence to run their own business.
The hub’s goal is to foster these skills and bring in the recovery community without fear of judgment.
“They should feel just as included,” Kilroy said. “The outreach that we do to people that we know who are starting businesses, should apply to them as well. It’s about making them feel included in this community.”
The innovation hub builds on the skills people already have. Another program in Scioto County focuses on those who need more basic tools to reenter the workforce.
People can be referred to the program if they have been convicted of charges or have pending charges related to their addiction.
Clients receive holistic services that include addiction treatment, housing, and wellness programs.
Administrative Director Nick Ferrara previously worked as a probation officer in the county for 19 years. During that time he learned employment is a big obstacle for sustained recovery.
“A lot of these guys don’t have an education, they don’t have a trade,” he said. “So they’re getting back into the community going back to the same environment they came from. And the vicious circle continues.”
The Scioto County Career and Technical Center, Scioto County Aspire, and Mountwest Community and Technical College are three of the main educational partners with the program.
They offer clients GED classes and job training in fields that include electrical, plumbing and maritime deck work.
“As long as you have people sitting around unemployed, continuing with criminal behavior, drug use, that’s just going to continue to weigh society down,” Ferrara said.
The goal is to get these people the help they need and then get them back into the communities and their families.
“If we can get people substance abuse treatment, the mental health treatment they need, give them a trade and actually get them out in the workforce, that can only help the economic recovery,” Ferrara said.
The crisis has so deeply affected the community in Portsmouth that many people now rally around those who were previously shunned due to the stigma surrounding addiction.
Author Sam Quinones, who frequently speaks at events in the region, has kept tabs on the community since “Dreamland” was published. He’s pleased to see the resurgence in community pride.
“The antidote to opiates is not naloxone,” he wrote in a blog post last year, referencing the overdose reversal medication commonly known as Narcan. “It is community.
“Rebuilding community (in a million different ways) is crucial…I’m glad to see Portsmouth leading the way on that, too.”
Business leaders are realizing addiction recovery and economic recovery can work together. And a community once defined by its fall invests in its rise, together.