When you talk agribusiness in Ohio, you have to talk Darke County in western Ohio. It perennially ranks first or second in the state in agricultural receipts. And therein lies its appeal for industry.

It is the farm-based work ethic, built over generations, that has attracted the likes of Whirlpool, Corning, Midmark and Allied Signal to the Darke County communities of Greenvillle, Versailles and Union City (which shares its city limits with Indiana).

Big agribusinesses in the county of 53,600 people include egg processing at Weaver Brothers, which employs 160 people. Whiteford's in Versailles makes hamburger patties for Burger King, Rally's and others.

Agriculture is a $213 million a year industry in Darke County, led by receipts in soybeans, corn, hogs and poultry. With abundant water for processing, Darke County shows potential for additional food processing firms.

"I feel it's the agricultural base and the life centered around the family that makes the labor force better here," says Shirley Magoteaux, vice president of administration for Midmark Corp., which moved the headquarters of its medical products business to Versailles in 1982. "The work ethic is tremendous. Part of that is because the school is often the family life. For example, the village of Versailles closes down every Friday night. Everybody's at the high school football game."

The emphasis on school life shows up in national test scores, which are higher than Ohio and national averages.

Darke County is within a 15-minute drive of I-75 and 10 minutes from I-70. Greenville, the county seat, is just 25 miles from Dayton International Airport. Darke County has service by the main line of Conrail, and the RJ Corman short line links Ansonia to Greenville.

Land costs are considerably less than areas closer to Dayton or to the interstates -- a company can buy a serviced site for half of what it would pay in the Dayton area. Darke County has plenty of serviced industrial sites for new and expanding industry, including the 33-acre W.J. Bohman Industrial Park and additional 105-acre and 83-acre sites in Versailles; the 120-acre Buchy Commerce Park and the 108-acre Greenville Industrial Park, both in Greenville.

Wage rates generally run about 75 percent of the state average. In addition, the cost of living is favorable. Housing is very economical, with good appreciation of home values. Good fire ratings and low crime rates equate to lower business insurance costs.

Midmark, founded in 1915, has grown tremendously since consolidating its medical products business in Darke County. The company fabricates and assembles medical and hospital hardgoods, such as casework, operating room tables, sterilizers, dental chairs and lighting. It markets the medical products worldwide.

Profile of Darke County

Location: West central Ohio, on the Indiana border, 20 miles from Dayton

Darke County: 53,664
Greenville: 12,873

Road: U.S. 36, 127. I-75 12 miles; I-70 10 miles.
Rail: Conrail, RJ Corman
Air: Dayton International, 25 miles. Local airport accommodates corporate aircraft.

Employment Mix:
Manufacturing: 31%
Trade: 23%
Services: 19%

Major Employers: AlliedSignal, Corning, Midmark, Neff Athletic Lettering, Whirlpool KitchenAid Division, BASF, Greenville Technology

Incentives: Enterprise Zone, Community Reinvestment Area

Education and Training: Edison Community College Branch; Upper Valley Joint Vocational School; Miami Valley CTC.

Hospital: 1, with 93 beds

"We're successful because of our "Screaming Eagles" teams," says Magoteaux. "The teams are empowered to simplify processes, increase quality and reduce costs." She cites one instance where the machinery maintenance department found a problem, solved it and saved the company well over $100,000. That management style, plus the innate loyalty of Darke County's work force, is one reason the company experiences exceptionally low employee turnover.

Photo : Jim Oliver
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Whirlpool consolidated four facilities into one at its new $12.5 million KitchenAid appliance plant.
Midmark has a good relationship with the community college, using the institution for such training as blueprint reading, management and supervisory skills. The college, as well as the Upper Valley JVS, are proactive in helping industry.

"We have one of the most tuned-in adult education centers available," says Jim Hill, of Darke County Economic Development. Edison and Sinclair Community College bring training out to the workplace. Nearby is a branch of Wright State University.

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Work force tops the list of Darke County advantages for other companies, as well. Says Jim Bero, site manager for BASF, on the reasons the company continues to invest in its Greenville plant: "We have been able to assemble a very competent work force that works together extremely well. People from this area seem to possess positive values and a sound work ethic that are inherent to their personal make-up. We give our associates a lot of responsibility and authority in an effort to maximize our productivity. Our people have adjusted very well to these challenges." BASF, which spent $60 million on a 1993 expansion of its Darke County plant, makes resins for the auto and paint industries, as well as varnishes for beverage cans.

Adds Deborah Samuelson, manager of Corning's Greenville plant: "The area's strong sense of community transcends into a strong and reliable work force with an old-fashioned work ethic. Despite rigorous new hire testing, Corning has always been successful at meeting employee requirements, even in times of low unemployment."

A quality work force -- the legacy of the area's German and French settlers -- was the main reason Whirlpool decided to invest in an 185,000-sq. ft., $12.5 million plant for its KitchenAid small appliance division in 1996. Plant manager Casey Drabik describes the area work force as "employees with a proven record of quality work."

Whirlpool's expansion consolidates four operations into the new facility. The company elected to remain in Darke County after reviewing 27 sites in eight cities in the Miami Valley. One reason: it didn't want to lose its Darke County work force. In Greenville Whirlpool makes KitchenAid mixers, blenders and other products. Hobart Corp. produced mixers in Greenville for nearly 50 years before Whirlpool acquired it in 1986.

Darke County is wide open to the plastics industry. It is just 45 minutes from Dayton, one of the major tool and die centers in the nation. There are opportunities for tapping the knowledge of composites technology at nearby Wright-Patterson and good access to the network of plastics companies in the Dayton area. Among major plastics companies in the county are Master Industries (thermoplastic components), Greenville Technology (injection molded plastic parts for autos), Preferred Plastic Sheet (extruded plastic sheet and roll stock), Witt Plastics (extruded plastic sheets and rolls) and Florida Production Engineering (automotive OEM plastic trim).
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Greenville Technology Inc. was founded in 1987 with 76 associates. In 10 years, employment has risen to 620. GTI manufacturers injection molded plastic parts.

The county rates highly with the business community. In a 1997 retention and expansion survey, 96 percent of the businesses rated the county good to excellent -- the highest rating an Ohio county has ever seen.

Government leaders go to bat for expanding industry. Hill cites an example: "For the 1996 Whirlpool expansion there probably wasn't a program untapped -- from low-interest state loans for purchase of machinery and equipment, state training program funds, state job creation tax credits and Enterprise Zone tax abatements to Community Reinvestment Area and direct money to purchase land and provide the infrastructure."

Jim Bero of BASF cites the company's relationship with public officials and agencies both at the local and state level as one reason for BASF's satisfaction with Darke County. "We've found the climate in this area to be very pro-business and that's been an advantage during our rapid expansion period," he says. "Over the years we've developed a relationship of trust with local government that makes us feel comfortable making additional investments in this area."

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Midmark, headquartered in Versailles, is a global leader in the medical equipment industry.
And the lifestyle in Darke County? Surprisingly well-appointed for a rural-based economy. Greenville has one of the largest modern art collections in the country. Health care is present through the 93-bed Wayne Hospital.

Greenville is a 1995 Red Carnation community, lauded by the Ohio Development Association for achievements in economic and community development. The award signifies the community's pride, an attribute, says BASF's Jim Bero, that "fosters a positive attitude that carries over into the workplace."

Yet Darke successfully plays up its rural heritage and its status as the homeplace for sharp shooter Annie Oakley and commentator Lowell Thomas. Almost everything stops during county fair week, when Darke County puts on one of Ohio's largest shows.

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