Jobs, opioid epidemic highlight forum with 51st Ohio Statehouse candidates

Business and economic issues were a primary focus in what was likely the only forum featuring all four candidates seeking Ohio’s 51st House District seat.

Incumbent Ohio Rep. Wes Retherford, R-Hamilton, is being challenged in the GOP primary election, which is May 8, by former lawmaker and county commissioner Greg Jolivette and local philanthropist Sara Carruthers. Susan Vaughn, the director of Ethics and Conflict Resolution at Miami University, is running unopposed in the Democratic primary.

WATCH: The 51st Ohio House District candidates forum

The forum was held April 18 in the Historic Council Chambers at the former city building, which is now the Hamilton Mill business center. All of the candidates praised the positive impact the business incubator has had on the city, which provided one of the more memorable lines of the night by Retherford: “It’s good to hear the other candidates up here support exactly what I’ve been doing for the past five years.”

Carruthers, who’s making her first bid at a public office, said the biggest opportunity for the district “is for us to reinvent ourselves economically.”

“I know a lot of people are talking about Spooky Nook as a great opportunity for Hamilton, and it will be and should be. But let’s talk honestly. It’s not a panacea,” she said. “That’s just one project.

VOTERS GUIDE: Build your personal ballot online and compare the candidates

Carruthers said she’d focus on supporting small business development that benefits the district, which includes all of the cities of Hamilton and Fairfield, as well as Ross Twp. and parts of Fairfield, Hanover and St. Clair townships. She also said she wants to reform the tax code and tax structure so that each “promotes entrepreneurship.”

Jolivette said he wants to create a local government rainy day fund, because the 2011 state cuts “hurt the cities and the townships.”

“That’s money that we should receive,” he said of the cuts that slashed the budgets of many smaller communities throughout the state. “I will propose a rainy day local government fund which would be tapped into when the economy takes a downturn.”

He also wants to bring more capital dollars to the district so communities “can prepare all the challenges that they face.”

Retherford said Spooky Nook, the multi-million dollar sports complex expected to break ground this year, will have an “astronomical” impact for not only the district, but also the communities surrounding it and the county.

RELATED: Spooky Nook founder: No matter what funding occurs ‘we’re not walking away’ from Hamilton

But businesses are looking for people to work, and “we have the resources here to get people back to work and allow them to be a part of the community again.”

Vaughn said the district needs to focus on the river for economic development opportunities.

“I believe there’s a lot of development that can happen along our riverfront,” she said which connects the communities within the district.

But she also wants to attract more businesses to the district like Spooky Nook, Barclaycard and Kettering Health Network.

“We need to create opportunities for jobs, and these are doing exactly what we want to do, and we can’t stop.”

Vaughn also said Ohio and the district should have state funding for entrepreneurial ideas, adding that “innovation is the creation of the future.” And while there are opportunities in the district, such as the ones provided by the Hamilton Mill, she said “we need to assess what are the businesses we are bringing in.”

“Through assessment, determining, we don’t need a dozen coffee shops, there are different needs for the community. We don’t in anyway want to restrict the businesses that are coming in, but I think we have to assess the development because I think we want every new business to be successful.”

But Jolivette, who owns Jolly’s in Hamilton on Ohio 4 near Dayton Street, said he’s the only one running for this Statehouse seat that “can relate to owning a small business.”

“I can relate to those who have a start-up business and want some advice, some mentoring and to be pointed in the right direction,” he said. “That’s what I will do as a state representative, to make sure I use my knowledge as a small businessman to help new businesses when they come into town if they want help and advice and pointed in the right direction.”

While business was the primary focus, the nationwide drug epidemic was also discussed. Many believe Ohio is one of the largest impacted states, if not the epicenter, of the opioid crisis.

“(It’s) destroying lives, tearing families, hurting local businesses,” said Carruthers, who said businesses cannot find enough sober workers to fill job openings. “We as a state need to focus on opioid prescriptions, treatment for those addicted and increase penalties on those who deal heroin.”

Retherford agreed with Carruthers, and said the Statehouse has already increased penalties on drug dealers, and "I sponsored legislation to crack down on people who sell drugs to pregnant women because babies born addicted to drugs are an ever-increasing cost to hospitals, as well."

That legislation, which he jointly sponsored with former lawmaker Margy Conditt, R-Liberty Twp., was included in 2014 in the infant mortality bill Senate Bill 276.

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