“We have the fundamental belief that the opportunity in front of us is one that’s transformational in nature,” says Brad Whitehead, president of Fund For Our Economic Future, a collaboration of funding communities that have come together to improve the economic vibrancy of Northeast Ohio.
There’s a need, he says, to transition the regional economy into one that’s globally competitive. That will require fundamental changes in the industry mix, how innovation is thought about and promoted, how the workforce is prepared and how infrastructure connects firms, people and opportunities.
The Fund and its members, which include businesses, nonprofits, governmental entities, foundations and individuals, try to determine what really matters to a healthy economy and what initiatives are effective, and then mobilize community stakeholders around actions that can make a difference in the region.
Data and tough questions
According to its 2016 annual report, the Fund has created and retained more than 24,400 jobs, added nearly $1.1 billion in payroll and attracted just more than $6 billion in capital to the region since its inception. It considers workforce and land-use systems to rewire the region to be better prepared to compete in today’s market.
It also has worked to put systems in place that can sustain, or even accelerate, economic gains and create support mechanisms for entrepreneurs who range from tech-based startups to those who could create vitality in struggling neighborhoods.
“We’ve partnered with the business community on making sure we have a business development system that is really growth oriented rather than simply chasing smokestacks,” Whitehead says.
To that end, the Fund looks at lots of research — its own and that of others — to make decisions. It also tries to understand what regional assets can be leveraged, where there is enthusiasm and momentum, and where there is not.
Once a decision is made, members ask tough questions of themselves that “are informed by data, but not ruled by data,” Whitehead says.
Members do a lot of soul searching in regard to what’s working and what’s not, and successes are deconstructed to determine exactly what role the Fund played.
“We’ve learned where we have been less successful is where we said, ‘Oh, you’re something that really has high potential, so we ought to have an industry cluster around that,’ but yet the conditions weren’t right for it really to flower,” Whitehead says. “We’ve since learned that we need to understand where the opportunities are, but then follow and see where there may be momentum in the community.”
He says there currently is momentum around additive manufacturing and a belief that Northeast Ohio could emerge as a hub for that industry. But not all bets pay out. The Fund previously considered instrumentation and controls as highly promising. The region, he says, was well positioned to compete and there was interest, “but it never got liftoff despite the fact that it looked good on paper because there just wasn’t sufficient support for it.”
Regional vs. local
In our regional economy, employers don’t necessarily feel like they’re attached to just one area. The Fund says that many Northeast Ohioans work in a different county than the one in which they live — for example, 20 percent of residents who work in Lorain, Cuyahoga, Medina, Geauga and Lake counties live outside of those five counties. But that doesn’t mean individual communities can be ignored.
“So in one sense we’re regional, but in another sense people still identify with their community. What we’ve learned in our 13 years of this is that the beauty comes in this nexus of realizing that we need local solutions in a regional context,” Whitehead says.
That means support for entrepreneurs need to play out in unique ways, whether aggregated at the regional level or through a more localized mechanism, he says.
“If we’re wanting to help a $15 million business grow in Massillon or Elyria who is in the energy business, they’re going to want somebody local who can call on them, who can know them and so forth. But at some point, they may want to talk to and access expertise that can be built regionally,” he says.
Looking back to 2002, Whitehead says there was a sense that the region was flat on its back and the future was bleak. He believes that has changed.
“There is now, I think, a palpable sense that there are industries in which we are able to compete, and that we’re not only winning sports championships but more importantly we’re building profiles in industries like additives, like biosciences, like the coatings business, and that there is a belief in a future. We have been contributors to that, along with others.”