REYNOLDSBURG — The population growth and increased diversity in Reynoldsburg and southwest Licking County could foretell the future for the rest of the county.
Reynoldsburg, partly in Licking County, saw its population grow by 14% from 2010 to 2020, reaching 41,076 residents. The city’s African-American population grew from 10% in 2000 to 26% in 2020, while the white population fell from 85% to 63% in the same 20-year period.
Reynoldsburg City Council President Angie Jenkins, an African-American woman and Licking County resident, said it’s important the city’s leadership changed to more closely reflect the community.
She retired from the Ohio attorney general’s office in 2018 and has 15 years of state government experience. She also worked for the Ohio Medical Board, the Board of Nursing Home Administrators, and Ohio Department of Health.
“More people are seeing they can be elected as a minority and have a seat at the table,” Jenkins said. “They saw the three women elected to city council for the first time in history and feel they can do it as well.
“There’s just a lot of changes because of the demographic changes. It totally looks different. It looks more like the community and that’s what we were hoping for.”
The eight-member Reynoldsburg council includes three African-American women elected in 2019 –Jenkins, Shanette Strickland and Meredith Lawson-Rowe, African-American man Stacie Baker, and Bhuwan Pyakurel, the first Nepali-Bhutanese elected official in the United States, chosen by voters in the 2019 election.
Baker, elected to Reynoldsburg City Council in 2017 and reelected in 2021, said it was a much different environment when he joined council.
“I was the diversity, racially, as the only person of color,” Baker said. “Reynoldsburg was not always friendly to those who weren’t Caucasian male.”
Although the change has been swift, the public has been accepting, Baker said.
“The reaction has been good,” Baker said. “Some people still want Reynoldsburg to be like yesteryear, but you have to progress or wither away. Now, council looks like the community. That way we have the perspective of all angles.”
Baker said he takes pride in his annual resolution to honor Black history month, which he recently did for the fifth time. He said the simple recognition had not occurred before his arrival.
He works as an outreach coordinator for the Franklin County treasurer’s office
Southwest Licking County not only has a majority minority city council and the nation’s first Nepali-Bhutanese elected official in Reynoldsburg, but the county’s first-ever Black township trustee in Rozland McKee-Flax, in Etna Township; a Black woman seeking to be the first-ever minority county commissioner and the first African-American ever on the Licking Heights School Board.
DeVeonne Gregory, of Reynoldsburg, an African-American woman running for Licking County commissioner, said, “I think it’s an amazing opportunity, What people are beginning to see is if you want to see change, you have to become part of the change.
“It’s no longer who you know in politics, but are you going to do the work and can people trust you? I see Licking County becoming one of the leading counties in Ohio, with opportunities for small business and opportunities for minorities.”
Gregory works as the chief compliance director for the National Center for Urban Solutions in Columbus.
Johnson, a Columbus Public Schools teacher in his sixth year on the Licking Heights School Board, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Ohio State University and a master’s from Ashland University. He said it is difficult to quantify the effects of an increase in African-Americans in leadership roles.
“What I can share is that diversity is not a divisive word in my book,” Johnson said. “If nothing else, the pandemic has taught us that the world is getting smaller, not bigger. What happened around the world yesterday, will impact us tomorrow.
“Context is needed now more than ever in order to make the best decisions. I have long felt that having diverse representation is the best path to ensuring that you have a deep understanding of an issue or topic. In turn, this allows for informed decisions, resulting in positive outcomes.”
McKee-Flax, who spent more than 30 years as an information technology and infrastructure professional in state government, said running for elected office and winning an election are important steps to changing the status quo.
“If we don’t step up, it’s going to continue to be the way it is and we don’t want that,” McKee said. “We want to be respected. We have ideals and we want to come together and work together.”
Still, there’s more to having an impact than an election victory, McKee said. She said people of color might gain a seat at the table, but sometimes it’s only so others can say they are being diverse.
“Just putting a person there is not the end of it, you have to work with them,” McKee said. “That’s where I see we’re not doing that out here. We got to get better at that.”
The growth and diversity has not been limited to the southwest part of the county, but it has been more pronounced in that area.
Licking County’s population of 178,519 in the latest census was a 7.2% increase from 2010, making it the state’s 17th largest county. The county’s white population decreased by 1,107 residents, while the minority population more than doubled from 11,300 in 2010, to 24,449 in 2020.
Ever since the expansion of Ohio 161 from Granville to New Albany more than a decade ago, Licking County has been expected to experience tremendous growth and development. It started with New Albany’s annexation into Jersey Township and opening of the Personal Care and Beauty Campus.
In the last few years, massive warehouses in Etna Township and data centers in New Albany created more jobs on the westerns edge of the county. And, solar fields are planned in Harrison and Hartford townships.
Then, the recent Intel announcement that a $20 billion computer chip manufacturing operation will locate just south of Johnstown, guaranteed Licking County will change dramatically, with thousands of new jobs creating the need for new housing, expanded schools and businesses.
“Having a global view is a must,” Johnson said. “Prior to becoming a teacher, I had the benefit of working with organizations that had international reach in buying, selling, sourcing, partnering, and in retaining talent.
“To be truly successful, organizations have to think and operate on a global scale. When I think of our graduates heading into the workforce, college, or the military, they are equipped with an inherent advantage because they are coming from a culturally rich environment. They will see opportunities where others cannot. They will have a sense of context which others might not.”
Pataskala Mayor Mike Compton said the developments will certainly change life in Licking County, and the public reaction will be divided.
“I welcome it,” Compton said. “I’d love to see more different ideas, avenues and cultures. It’ll probably be like everything else, 50-50.
“The old-time guys and farmers who don’t want things to change will probably be against it. And I love the rural part of it, but I also love the amenities, like more rooftops lead to more restaurants.”
He noted that Chipotle recently opened in Etna, shortening the drive for residents who travel to the restaurant in Blacklick.
Jeff Harris, a African-American and Newark city councilman at-large, said Licking Countians may be frustrated with increased traffic or longer lines at stores, but not by the racial breakdown of the newcomers.
“Hopefully, it’ll increase diversity,” Harris said of the development coming to Licking County. “People are not going to react any different. I think they’ll have a bigger problem reacting to just more people in the county than the color of their skin. I don’t think we have a racism problem in Licking County.
“There will be a lot more people in Licking County. A lot more housing and business in Licking County. And, in schools. It’ll change Licking County in a big way.”
Harris made history recently when he filled in for Council President Don Ellington, becoming either the first or second African-American to run a Newark City Council meeting as the chairman. Harris said the first Black council member, Robert Weaver, may have done so in the 1960s.
Following are some recent historic events for African-Americans in Southwestern Licking County:
2022: DeVeonne Gregory, of Reynoldsburg, enters race for Licking County commissioner, seeking to become the first-ever Black county commissioner.
2022: Teneah Chambers, of Reynoldsburg, a Black woman, enters race for Ohio Senate.
2021: Rozland McKee-Flax elected an Etna Township trustee, the first Black township trustee to serve anywhere in Licking County. Teneah Chambers also ran for Etna Township trustee.
2019: Angie Jenkins, Shanette Strickland and Meredith Lawson-Rowe — three African-American women — elected to Reynoldsburg City Council, along with Bhuwan Pyakurel, the first Nepali-Bhutanese elected official in the United States.
2017: Stacie Baker, an African-American man, elected to Reynoldsburg City Council. He was reelected in 2021.
2016:Paul Johnson, an African-American man, appointed to Licking Heights Board of Education, then elected in 2017 and reelected in 2021.