Knox County

To say that Knox County is central to markets is not just promotional hype. A boulder in the town of Centerburg marks the exact geographic center of Ohio.

Just 40 miles northeast of Columbus, Knox County is a quiet haven from urban chaos. The county seat of Mt. Vernon is picture-perfect, with its restored Victorian homes and brick streets. The locals will tell you that the gently rolling hills of Knox County have a mellowing effect on people. Agricultural production still accounts for over two-thirds of Knox County's land use, and the bustle of the thriving county is softened by the quiet ways of Knox County's substantial Amish community.

It was the combination of hills, open spaces and well-tended town that prompted Ohio Magazine to name Mt. Vernon the state's most livable city in 1994.

Don't think of Knox County as the bedroom of Columbus. In livability and industry base it has its own identity. There are a number of globally significant firms -- Cooper Energy Services and Owens Corning among them.

Knox County is also home to three strong auto industry suppliers, window maker Wenco and American National Can, which makes the liners for Playtex baby bottles. Divelbiss makes controllers, one of which is mechanisms for firing range targets. The county was chosen by Owens Corning to house a research unit and production for the company's new fiber, Miraflex. Knox County is headquarters for one of the nation's largest construction firms, Kokosing.

Knox County is the compressor capital of the world, headquartering two big international players.

Ariel Corp. makes natural gas compressors, used in gas gathering and pipeline transmission. The company, which started in the founder's basement to serve a niche market for smaller compressors, employs 360 and is today the largest manufacturer of gas compressors in the world. The company sells worldwide, including Russia, China, Southeast Asia and South America.

Karen Buchwald Wright, advertising director for Ariel Corp., cites location and labor force as two reasons for the company's success.

"The reason we like Ohio is the available forges and foundries we have access to, plus the tradition of working hard and the stability of the work force in this part of Ohio," she says. "We have a remarkable work force -- I would put it up against any company in the world," she says.

Cooper Energy Services, a division of Cooper Cameron Corp., is Knox County's largest employer, with 1,350 workers. In addition to the divisional headquarters, the Cooper-Rolls joint venture, which uses Rolls Royce gas turbines to drive compressors, is also headquartered in Knox County.

Profile of Knox County

Location: Central Ohio, 35 miles from Columbus

Knox County: 48,478
Mt. Vernon: 14,735

Road: U.S. 36, 62. 10 miles to I-71.
Rail: CSX
Air: Port Columbus, 45 miles

Employment Mix:
Manufacturing: 28%
Trade: 19%
Services: 24%

Major Employers: American National Can Co., Ariel, Cooper Energy Services, Kelsey-Hayes, Kokosing Construction, Wenco.

Incentives: Enterprise Zone

Education and Training: Knox County Career Center, branch of Central Ohio Technical College, Kenyon College, Mount Vernon Nazarene College

Hospital: 1, with 119 beds (named as one of the nation's Top 100 Hospitals)

The company provides products and services for oil and gas production and transmission, as well as the industrial, process and non-utility power generation markets. These include engines, giant reciprocating and centrifugal compressors (from 10,000 to 45,000 hp), gas turbines, turbo-chargers and control systems. The company, one of the oldest in Ohio, has been in Knox County since 1833.

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Knox County is a peaceful living environment, with a choice of lifestyles and abundant affordable housing.
Robert Rafferty, V.P. Human Resources, reports Knox County's work force measures up to the skilled jobs the company needs. "The critical skills include machining, welding and mechanical assembly," he says. "Our employees work in the tens of thousandths of inches, which is like taking a hair on your head and splitting it three times."

One of Knox County's newest industries is FT Precision, a joint venture between American Honda and Tanaka Semitsu Kyogo. The company makes rocker arms for auto engines -- enough to outfit 500 Honda engines a day. The company's 110,000-sq. ft. plant on 47 acres represents a $46 million investment.

FT Precision looked at sites in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, before narrowing the choices to nine sites in Ohio. To court the company, the Knox County Chamber of Commerce, the Area Development Foundation and the county commissioners worked with the Ohio Dept. of Development to compose an incentive package that included a Community Development Block Grant to allow for road improvements, water, sewer and power.

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"That package, plus the availability of I-70 and I-71 to transport to Honda's Anna engine plant, were the primary business reasons we located here," says Masaaki Shibata, president.

Once the economic issues were addressed, the aesthetics came next, says Shibata. "Knox County's rolling hills were the closest we could come to the foothills of the Japanese Alps," he says. "In a Japanese person's mind the aesthetics of an issue are very important." With typical Japanese attention to the visually pleasing, FT Precision's parking lot is in the shape of an automobile, and the pond in front of the plant is shaped like a rocker arm.

The company has a very young work force -- the average age is just 22 -- and the adaptation to Japanese management style has been good. "One of the main things we look for is an employee's ability to change course in mid-stream, indicating the flexibility of the work force," says Shibata.

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Kenyon College in Gambier, an excellent liberal arts institution, is Ohio's oldest private college.
Knox County is also an education center. Kenyon College, the oldest private liberal arts college in Ohio, has a reputation for academic excellence. More than 70 percent of graduates go on to additional studies. Mount Vernon Nazarene College is a four-year private liberal arts institution offering 29 baccalaureate programs in six disciplines.

Enhancing adult education opportunities is the Career Center, located near the industrial park in Mt. Vernon. It also offers full-time, year-long, skill training programs, as well as customized services for business and industry.

A branch campus of Central Ohio Technical College provides associate and certificate programs in business, health, engineering, public services, information processing and nursing.

As the population and economic growth of Columbus spread north, Knox is beginning to see development pressures. Indicative of the county's popularity is the fact that Knox County industries expanded their work forces by 5,100 jobs from 1993 to 1996. Moreover, Knox County's population of 47,500 in 1990 had blossomed to 51,000 by 1995, an indication of the county's appeal as a homestead.

To preserve the lifestyle that attracted residents and industries, Knox County has put into place the Focus 2100 program. Land use planning is designed to preserve the rural nature of community and improve transportation and education. "This is not anti-growth; it's managed growth," says Knox County economic developer Tom Heine.

Industries like AMG, which makes metal stampings for the auto industry, cite work force as a major Knox County asset. "One of the best sources of employees is the farm community," says Dennie McElroy, V.P. "People with an agricultural background have a can-do attitude and know how to make things work."

Companies like AMG and Ariel call on the Career Center for continuing training for machinists, CNC operators and leadership skills. The center also screens applicants for Knox County's new Pre-Employment Training program.

"We found the work force was ready and willing but in need of additional training," says Mike D'Arcy, manager of general affairs for FT Precision.

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J.B. Foote Foundry has been in Knox County since the 1800s, producing iron castings.

The program, designed to ensure the quality of the work force over the long term, is funded by five major Knox County employers. The six-week program provides OSHA-required training, statistical process control, teamwork training, basic math and metric conversions. Applicants for the program, who pay tuition to join, are screened by the Career Center.

There is a strong sense of community in Knox County, where volunteers give freely to improve the quality of life. Just one example is the new library in Fredricktown. Kokosing donated a foreman to coordinate the project. A sign in the city square advertised what help was needed each week -- electricians, plumbers, painters, etc. The community raised $750,000 for materials, and the balance of the $2 million project -- the labor costs -- was paid by volunteer sweat.

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