STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — Scott Dressel has risked his life savings to help rescue this struggling old steel town that is still plagued by double-digit unemployment and banking on a natural gas boom that has yet to materialize.
He has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore rental properties and to open a quaint bed-and-breakfast in the historic district. He uses his free time to tackle a massive rebuilding project at Steubenville's Grand Theater, a dilapidated downtown structure that used to be the pride of a city that is the birthplace of Rat Pack legend Dean Martin.
"It's worth saving," the soft-spoken 51-year-old entrepreneur said, outlining the years of work that remain to get the theater back in working order. "What concerns me is not being able to get it done in time. I'd like to get it done before I die."
Like other towns throughout the nation's Rust Belt, Steubenville is mired in an uphill battle to regain the economic prosperity of decades ago, when a thriving steel industry fueled growth and created wealth.
Steubenville's decline has been extreme — unemployment topped 15 percent two years ago, and population has dropped every decade since the 1950s — though the struggle is mirrored in towns across eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania and New York.
Now, with both presidential candidates promising revival, residents are left weighing the promises.
"One crook, the other crook — they're all going to steal our money from us," said 54-year-old Peggy Murphy, a longtime resident of Johnstown, Pa., about two hours east of Steubenville.
"I tell my son all the time to get out of this town," she said in between taking orders at the city's Coney Island restaurant, where her son also works because he is unable to find a better job.
Johnstown, too, has seen its vibrant coal and steel industries disappear, though for years it had a guardian angel in the form of Rep. John P. Murtha, a Democrat whose position on a defense spending subcommittee in Congress helped him pump tens of millions of dollars back to the city. But with Mr. Murtha's death in 2010, the money is drying up.
President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney have some explaining to do to voters here, too.
During the 2008 race, Mr. Obama infamously said voters in rural areas are "bitter" about the lack of economic opportunities, and so they "cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them." Earlier this year, Mr. Romney committed his own misstep by declaring that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government help, and therefore are unlikely to vote for him — a statement that covers many in the Rust Belt who are in poverty and eligible for welfare assistance.
The statements have left the people of Steubenville and Johnstown feeling forgotten, not fully trusting that either candidate will make a real difference in their lives.
"I don't think it will make a difference for me personally," Mr. Dressel said of the election's outcome, though he already has cast a vote for Mr. Obama. The people of Steubenville "are frustrated, so why bother voting? I hear a lot of that. There's a lot of apathy. People are very pessimistic here. When you're negative in your mind for 20 years about an area, it's hard to turn around."
He based his vote mainly on the fact that he thinks Mr. Obama hasn't had enough time to turn around the economy and argues that the hardships in Steubenville and surrounding areas aren't the president's fault.
"I don't think he's ruining the country any worse than anybody else did," Mr. Dressel said.
Steubenville is seeing some improvement. Its unemployment rate is down from its high of 15 percent in 2010 to 10.6 percent as of September.
How the region will vote next week remains unpredictable. Steubenville's Jefferson County is a historically Democratic area, a party allegiance created by labor groups representing the steelworkers of decades past. But in 2008, the county split almost evenly between Mr. Obama and Republican John McCain. It was a similar story in Johnstown's Cambria County, a Democratic stronghold but one that went for Mr. Obama by 1 percentage point, with 49.6 percent of the vote to Mr. McCain's 48.5 percent.
Mr. Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, visited New Philadelphia, Ohio, about an hour west of Steubenville, last weekend and promised that help is on the way if the Republican ticket wins the White House on Nov. 6.
"We want to wake up that morning [after Election Day] and know that our coal jobs are coming to eastern Ohio, that our natural gas jobs are coming," he said, speaking to a crowd of supporters at a local business.
Mr. Obama has made a similar pitch to those in areas where economic despair has led many voters to outright political disinterest and fomented doubt in political leaders of both parties.
For restaurant and bar owner Greg Froehlich, who runs one of Steubenville's nighttime hot spots across town from Mr. Dressel's bed-and-breakfast, neither candidate fully understands the challenges he faces to make it each month.
"They don't have a clue," he said as he sat back in his office chair in a back room at Froehlich's Classic Corner, as a local musician serenaded about 20 patrons with classic rock tunes in the bar.
"They don't know that I'm fighting a labor force that knows they can sit at home and make as much money through entitlement programs, rather than coming to work for me. Washington doesn't know that," he said.
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