The Despair & the Hope of Portsmouth, Ohio

As recorded by J.D. Bentley March 14th, 2018
The Despair & the Hope of Portsmouth, Ohio

In 1930, Portsmouth, Ohio peaked with a population of 42,000 people. It was full of life. Its economy was built on the strength of steel mills and shoe factories that employed vast numbers of workers. There were busy streets, thriving businesses, and hope for the future.

However, by 1950 the city had started a decline that carried it into the new millennium. Markets changed. Competition from foreign manufacturers combined with industrial restructuring saw the factories that Portsmouth relied on move elsewhere. Unskilled labor was outsourced and skilled workers saw no benefit in staying. The city began hemorrhaging its best and brightest to urban areas that offered more opportunity.

By 2010, the population had fallen to just around 20,000 people.

Portsmouth’s economic downturn was met with the rise of oxycodone, known by its brand name, OxyContin, or by its nickname, "Hillbilly Heroin", so-called because of its popularity in the Appalachian regions of Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

The hopelessness that set in as factory after factory closed its doors was taken advantage of by evil men. Instead of providing hope or reinvigorating people with purpose, they found a way to get rich while keeping those people numb and, eventually, killing them.

It started across the river from Portsmouth in the much smaller town of South Shore, Kentucky, with a corrupt physician who carried a laughably sinister name: Doctor Procter.

Procter pioneered a business model that would eventually be called a "Pill Mill" and this model spread throughout the area and eventually the nation, taking advantage of hopeless people everywhere.

Kentucky Law Enforcement Magazine describes the "Pill Mill" model as such:

"No physical exams are given; only cash is accepted as payment; excessive traffic to and from the doctor’s office; complaints from pharmacists about doctor’s practices; large cash deposits at the bank; patients are in and out of the doctor’s office in minutes."

The price of a visit was generally between $125 and $200. Pay that, and you’d walk out with a prescription guaranteed.

Procter and other Pill Mills were eventually targeted and shut down, but not before opioid abuse had turned into a nationwide epidemic and Portsmouth, Ohio into its epicenter.

Sam Quinones writes more about the history and development of the opioid crisis in his book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, but I’m especially concerned with the sense of despair left in the wake of the opioid crisis, and in how this crisis can be overcome.

The Sin of Despair

I grew up in the Portsmouth-area alongside Portsmouth’s downfall, so I didn’t even realize until recently how far it had fallen. Only with the advent of local Facebook groups did I see what the town used to be like: streets packed with people, lined with beautiful signage. Every old photo of the city breathes life, so much so that I can hardly believe it’s the same place.

Portsmouth’s downtown was practically abandoned. It was full of decrepit, empty buildings that hinted at the beauty of the past without reflecting any of it. There was nothing to do and nowhere to go unless hanging out in a Walmart parking lot sounded like fun (which admittedly can if given no other option.)

There’s an overwhelming pessimistic air in much of the city. The city has fallen into the sin of despair.

I say sin intentionally because, while I understand how people can be disappointed or heartbroken by the last few decades, many have become unreasonably and nihilistically disappointed. Completely hopeless to the point of perpetual victimhood. To the point that it’s no longer the corrupt government or the disloyal factories or the Pill Mills we have to blame for things not getting better. It’s been too long for that.

Now the problem is us.

My wife and I have taken a certain amount of pride in the town as of late, even though we live across the river in Kentucky. We’ve fallen in with a group of people who love the city and who are hopeful about its future. People who are doing something to make Portsmouth better. That hopefulness rubbed off on us.

So much so that we created a video that showed off the town. In it, we followed a family around some of the coolest places and recorded them playing with their kids. And my wife made it look spectacular. The video showed off the city in a way that we’re hardly used to:

As if it’s inhabitable.

For that reason, the video was successful and well-liked. But what irked me were the comments and messages we received denigrating the city, calling it dirty, tearing down the people, and accusing us of misleading viewers (because we didn’t show the kids being harassed by drug addicts, I guess.)

Disappointment says, "I wish things weren’t like this."

But the sin of despair says, "Things can never be different, we don’t deserve better, we won’t even try and neither should you."

The Lazy Solution

On one of the Facebook groups last night, the perennial question was asked. It’s some variation of "Portsmouth makes me sad. How can it be fixed?" And there’s always the same lazy solution: bring back the factories. What can we do to get another steel mill? What can we do to get another shoe factory?

I’m sure this solution is well-intentioned, but it’s wrong. And often, the people who suggest that solution are, intentionally or unintentionally, using the unwillingness or the unviability of steel mills and shoe factories to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the current state of affairs. They get to lean on their nostalgia while thinking, "It’s just too bad other people won’t do anything about this."

They never ask, "What can I directly do?"

The Real Solution

I’ve seen the real solution. And it’s more exciting. And it’s viable.

The real solution is to stop wallowing in self-pity and to start investing in every person here.

The future is in creating a generation of entrepreneurs who work small and who do creative things, inventing niches and filling niches that can’t be filled by the large corporations. A generation of entrepreneurs who build businesses large enough to support themselves and then maybe 10 or so employees.

That’s not only possible, it’s happening.

The people who only want to see drugs and failure will continue to see drugs and failure, but let me tell you what I see:

  • PSKC Crossfit helping eradicate obesity and whip this town back into shape with its workouts and camaraderie.
  • Patties & Pints serving up, I believe, the second highest number of on-tap craft beers in the state of Ohio, not to mention acting as a sort of hub for some of the most talented people in the area.
  • Ohio Furnace Beard Co. promoting the Appalachian blue-collar tradition and making my beard smell damn good.
  • 3rd & Court cultivating small-town pride with their hyperlocal apparel.
  • Be Ignited Entrepreneurship Course which I just wrapped up yesterday with our "Pitch Night". This 9-week course teaches aspiring entrepreneurs how to validate their ideas and turn them into sustainable businesses. Not only that, but there were talks and one-on-one time with some of the most influential and successful entrepreneurs in Portsmouth.
  • McChesney Ridge getting Portsmouth active with its hiking, running, yoga, mountain biking, and trail events (and a gym coming soon).
  • Doc Spartan producing 100% all natural products for skin and beards, including its famous Combat Ready Ointment. And they were on ABC’s Shark Tank.
  • The Scioto County Candor disrupting the local newspaper industry and making local news worth reading again.
  • Charlie Haskins prolifically painting works of whimsical and fantastic Portsmouth art.
  • The Creative Cult reinvigorating local creativity. I guarantee they will be one of the keys to helping the people of Portsmouth imagine new and greater things for themselves.
  • The Happy Pot delighting kids of all ages with their paint-your-own pottery events.
  • The Hammer & Nels Podcast building strong men. (I put this podcast in the sidebar for a reason. Listen to it.)
  • And K&S Digital Marketing, The Marketing Company, and Carla Bentley Visual Storytelling (a well-deserved plug for my wife) for helping local entrepreneurs tell the right stories, reach the right people, and look good doing it.

And this list doesn’t include the retro candy store, Sweet Addie Grace, or the wine and bourbon bar, Sips on 2nd, which aren’t even open yet. In fact, there are lots more I’ve left out.

All that to say, if you’re serious about a solution to the economic devastation that has crippled Portsmouth and other small towns, then you have to start, first, with believing in that town and committing to it.

Because that ultimately means taking responsibility for it.

If you believe in the town and you are committed to the town, then the next step, the most difficult step, is this: start a business and/or support the ones that are here.

Because we need more people willing to take on the risk of starting a business, who will do something creative, profitable, useful, and exciting for the community. And we need a community that’s eager to spend their money on those risk takers.

It’s not easy, and it will be a slow burn to completely recover the morale and hope that was lost, but they can and will be recovered.

Only then can we tackle the opioid crisis. Because the drug problem is just a symptom.

Despair is the disease.