JIM DeBROSSE

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I'm the author of five books, a contributing writer for Cincinnati Magazine, and an award-winning newspaper reporter and columnist who retired in 2018 from teaching journalism at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I'm the former Project Editor of Ohio Civics Essential, a monthly series of stories aimed at educating voters in civics knowledge and engagement. As part of my commitment to social justice, I co-founded a news website devoted to workplace fairness and equal opportunity, "Cincinnatians for the American Dream." I live in Cincinnati's historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood and volunteer as an English teacher for immigrants through Catholic Charities.

 

 

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MY LATEST STORIES

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Nasty divorce proceedings between Jared Davis, the founder of Check ’n Go, and his wife Bridget reveal a salacious sideshow of rich people behaving badly.

When Bridget Davis got started in the family’s payday lending business in 1996, there was just one Check ’n Go store in Cincinnati. She says she did it all: customer service, banking duties, even painting walls.

The company had been established two years earlier by her husband, Jared Davis, and was growing rapidly. There were 100 Check ’n Go locations by 1997, when Jared and Bridget (née Byrne) married and traveled the country together looking for more locations to open storefront outlets. They launched another 400 stores in 1998, mostly in strip malls and abandoned gas stations in low-income minority neighborhoods where the payday lending target market abounds. Bridget drove the supply truck and helped select locations and design the store layouts.

But Jared soon fired his wife for committing what may be the ultimate sin in the payday lending business: She forgave a customer’s debt. “A young woman came to pay her $20 interest payment,” Bridget wrote in court documents last year during divorce proceedings from Jared. “I pulled her file, calculated that she had already paid $320 to date on a principle [sic] loan of $100. I told her she was paid in full. [Jared] fired me, stating, ‘We are here to make money, not help customers manage theirs. If you can’t do that, you can’t work here.’ ”

It’s a business philosophy that pays well, especially if you’re charging fees and interest rates of 400 percent that can more than triple the amount of the loan in just five months—the typical time most payday borrowers need to repay their debt, says the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit organization focused on public policy. Cincinnati-based Check ’n Go now operates more than 1,100 locations in 25 states as well as an internet lending service with 24/7 access from the comfort of your own home, according to its website. Since its founding, the company has conducted more than 50 million transactions.

What the website doesn’t say is that many, if not most, of those transactions were for small loans of $50 to $500 to working people trying to scrape by and pay their bills. In most states—including Ohio, until it reformed its payday lending laws in 2019—borrowers typically fork over more than one-third of their paycheck to meet the deadline for repayment, usually in two weeks. To help guarantee repayment, borrowers turn over access to their checking account or deposit a check with the lender. In states that don’t offer protection, customers go back again and again to borrow more money from the same payday lender, typically up to 10 times, driving themselves into a debt trap that can lead to bankruptcy.

Jared and Bridget Davis are embroiled in a nasty court battle related to his 2019 divorce filing in Hamilton County Domestic Relations Court. Thousands of pages of filings and 433 docket entries by April 26 offer the public a rare glimpse into the business operations of Check ’n Go, one of Cincinnati’s largest privately-owned companies, as well as personal lifestyles funded by payday lending.

The company cleared $77 million in profit in 2018, a figure that dipped the following year to $55 million, according to an audit by Deloitte. That drop in revenue may have something to do with the payday lending reform laws and interest rate caps passed recently in Ohio as well as a growing number of other states.

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Emerson Stewart III, the third-generation operator of Red Stewart Airfield, shouts “Contact!” out the open cockpit window. Like a scene from a classic aviation film, the mechanic heaves downward on the front propeller—once, twice—and the Piper Cub’s underwhelming 65-horsepower engine (the kind you’d find at the rear of a vintage VW Beetle) coughs into uncertain life. Chug, Chug, Chugga-Chug, Chug, Chug, Chugga-Chug… Stewart is in the front seat of the canary yellow Cub, and I’m in the back, sharing the same set of simple controls. My legs are splayed and feet pressed against two rudder pedals, the aileron stick nearly in my crotch and about navel high.

I’m here to learn more about Stewart and his family of aerobatic aviators and flight instructors, as well as to get a taste of flying the old-fashioned way, called “tail wheel” or “tail dragging,” named for the landing gear on vintage planes with a steerable wheel in back. Think of any biplane or World War II war bird, and you have the idea. The joy of tail wheel flying—stick and rudder, seat of your pants, little instrumentation separating pilot from plane—draws beginners and experienced pilots from all over the country and the world to this tiny grass airstrip in Waynesville, Ohio. I’m about to find out why.

Pilots who have received flight training at Red Stewart Airfield say its long-standing appeal is born of its combination of vintage planes and the Stewart family’s devotion to traditional flying. “This little airport in Waynesville is one of the best-kept secrets in the region,” says Brad Conner, a 47-year-old local funeral home owner who took up flying again two years ago after a 25-year hiatus. “It feels to me like going back in time. They could have easily paved over the runway years ago, but they’ve wanted to maintain that sense of history.”

Connor Riggs, who’s training to be a flight instructor at Red Stewart, says his love affair with Cubs began a decade ago when he was 14, the first time his uncle took him up in one. “They’re just unique antiques. You can fly them with the door open. To me, there’s nothing closer to flying like a bird.”

Greg Johnson, an aeronautical engineer at GE Aviation, was drawn to Red Stewart Airfield to earn his private license because of its hands-on approach to training. “At typical flight schools, they’ll have a lot of ground school work first and then you’re in the aircraft. Here, the approach is, You’re in a plane from day one.”

“You don’t have to be an astronaut to do this,” says Emerson “Cub” Stewart Jr., explaining the school’s simple philosophy. He owns the airfield with his wife, Cathy. “The average guy can do it with proper guidance and encouragement.”

And by preserving the less expensive tradition of grassroots flying, the school has been able to keep its rates lower than many other programs, says Julie Malkin, a Glendale resident who earned her private pilot license there last fall. The New England transplant, whose father was an aeronautical engineer, says she always knew she’d enjoy flying but thought the training would be too expensive.

Then, about eight years ago, a friend in New Richmond took her up in an ultralight. “I was hooked and wanted to get my feet off the ground,” she says. Her friend told her about Red Stewart Airfield, where she got her recreational license at age 60 (she’s 67 now). It took her several more years to earn her private license. “They’re very concerned about making sure you know the basics,” says Malkin, “but they really let you go at your own pace.”