The path to understanding that economies are regional and not local has been a difficult one for Northeast Ohio, as demonstrated by the evolution of regional ideas.
According to Dick Pogue, an early champion for regionalism, the journey began in the early 1970s with a seminal study by Doxiadis Associates, a global consulting firm based in Greece. Its engagement in Northeast Ohio was commissioned by the Northern Ohio Urban System Research Corporation “to conduct long-range studies of a broad region that could be used to enhance the future of that region in the best possible way for its citizenry.” Several economic crises and additional studies by the RAND Corp. and McKinsey & Co. helped catalyze regional thinking and the formation of intermediary, nonprofit organizations that cut across localities.
The Regional Economic Institute was one early and important initiative that did great work under the able and prescient leadership of Richard Shatten, but could not be sustained after Shatten’s untimely death.
In the late 1990s, the Regional Business Council was formed and eventually morphed into TeamNEO. With support from the Fund for our Economic Future, TeamNEO is now a fairly broad regional economic entity, while other organizations, such as NorTech, NOCHE, JumpStart and BioEnterprise, also have or had more focused interests across the region.
From rubber to plastic
Yet, despite 50 years of building an increasingly regional understanding of the Northeast Ohio economy, a great deal of economic rhetoric continues to reflect an outdated and obsolete legacy of a time when municipalities were smaller, simpler and seemingly more distant.
The polymer industry is a case in point: Although Akron was once the “Rubber Capital of the World,” with the four major tire companies located there, the evolution of the polymer industry has made it clear that all of Northeast Ohio now serves as the “Polymer Capital of the World,” with more than 2,000 polymer companies located throughout the region. Akron still remains a hub of polymer activity, but the polymer industrial cluster is now widely distributed across Northeast Ohio.
This evolution of regional thinking surely will continue, and all of this means that there is still much to be done to build a regional framework. Among the many things that can be done, perhaps the most important is to bring civic and business leaders to a common level of understanding. Conducting a primer on economic development could help put everyone on the same page by listing all of the many interacting and competing elements of an economy. This would discern what elements are in place and identify others that are absent or need to be strengthened across Northeast Ohio.
Careful review of other work on regional economies, such as that of the Council on Competitiveness or the National Academies, also can help emphasize, for example, that talent attraction should be viewed just as importantly as talent development, and that company attraction may well be less important than new company formation through R&D and technology commercialization.
Much as nighttime satellite images will show, the Northeast Ohio regional economy shines as a single, luminous whole. Hopefully, more business leaders will embrace that perspective.
Luis Proenza is President Emeritus at The University of Akron