Extreme makeover Featured

6:04pm EDT July 29, 2006
Throughout history, there has been resistance to change. And transforming the economic outlook of Lorain County has been no exception.

But after years of worry and speculation, with little effective action, Lorain County leaders are determined to change the county’s reputation, erasing the image of a blue-collar community and replacing it with one that shouts innovation and opportunity.

Lorain County officials have known for years that drastic measures are needed to transition the area from the manufacturing base that sustained it for decades to a better-educated, more service-oriented region. And they now have a plan to make that happen, with several initiatives in the public and private sectors, as well as in higher education.

Cause and effect
The root of the problem in Lorain County can’t be traced to one particular event. Rather, a gradual decline has led to the need for immediate and sweeping changes.

The percentage of Lorain County’s work force directly involved in manufacturing has decreased from 40 percent in the 1980 U.S. Census to 22 percent in the 2000 Census — and that is still dropping, says Roy A. Church, president of Lorain County Community College.

“So in 25 years, we’ve had a major transformation of the manufacturing sector, which has caused a dramatic dislocation or disruption in the economy as we had known it since the Second World War,” Church says. “And there are all kinds of ramifications, obviously, that fall out of that.”

And while residents accept that heavy manufacturing is not going to make a comeback, they still expect the same kind of wages associated with those kinds of well-paying jobs, which only compounds the issue.

“The problem we’re having is not completely in job creation, but it’s the expectation of high-paying manufacturing jobs that have been lost and will probably not be replaced,” says Lorain County Administrator James Cordes. “So when we create jobs, they are usually either lower-skilled or lower-waged jobs, and there’s a bit of a dissatisfaction because this community is used to very high-paying manufacturing jobs.”

County leaders realize the jobs of the future are going to require a higher skill level with more advanced degrees, and LCCC has made it part of its mission to try to make that happen.

“One of the things that we know is the innovation economy is, in many ways, driven by the educational attainment levels of the population in local communities,” Church says. “So we wanted to try to help raise (those) levels.

“What we discovered was, in the 1990 Census, our county had the highest percentage of adults with associate degrees of any of the counties in Northeast Ohio. But at the bachelor’s level, we were dead last — and dead last by a lot. At the graduate level, we were dead last by more. And so we started a community-based initiative to see how we could use the community college as a host to bring programs into Lorain County that would enable all those people that had associate degrees to move to the next level.”

LCCC developed a University Partnership program that partners with nine Ohio colleges and universities to offer degrees at the LCCC campus. In 10 years, the program has expanded to bring 23 bachelor’s degree and 13 master’s degree programs to approximately 3,000 students a year. The project has helped Lorain County move out of last place, to just ahead of Ashtabula County, Church says.

The college has also created its own Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute to develop curriculum around entrepreneurship education, which will be housed in a new 45,000-square-foot facility being built on campus in the Great Lakes Technology Park.

The center is meant to be the front door to business resources offered by LCCC, including facility space, customized training, work force development, market research, innovation funding and more.

“All of these efforts are an attempt to help the rest of the world to see Lorain County as a hub for innovation and development,” Church says. “We know we’ve got the talent and the people to enable this county to again be extremely successful in the next generation of industry in Northeast Ohio.

“We want to help pioneer what that’s going to be, and to build on that and to give people those kinds of opportunities right here in our community.”

Multiplying effect
Leaders recognize that the key to making a significant difference is also based in collaboration and synergy.

“There is lot of territorialism going on within Lorain County — it has gone on for decades,” Cordes says. “Unless we work together, none of these communities are going to be able to do it on their own.”

The county has made a huge effort to combat that territorialism by forming the Lorain County Growth Partnership, a joint venture of several organizations involved in community and economic development to be housed on the fifth floor of the County Administration Building.

The Department of Community Development, the Lorain County Chamber of Commerce, the Small Business Development Center, the Port Authority and several other entities will have offices there once renovations are finished.

“The Lorain County Growth Partnership is a metaphor for cooperation,” Cordes says. “Each entity will be contributing to the betterment of the community with the strengths they have. The key to it is locating those entities in close proximity so there’s a natural tendency to gravitate toward consensus building and working collaboratively. ... Location has a lot to do with working together — not that people don’t work together when they’re miles apart, but they somehow work better when they’re co-located.

“Bringing these things all together allows us to have a multiplying effect on the limited resources that everybody has. Together, when they sing in unison, we get a very loud voice, but individually, it’s not powerful enough to be heard, and we need to amplify those voices to be able to deliver maximum services to the community.”

The county has even gone so far as to split the Chamber of Commerce into two sectors to better focus on community development.

“The kind of programs that we were running here in Lorain County, particularly at the Chamber of Commerce, really needed to be revised and refocused so that we could be better equipped to meet the needs or the opportunities that arose,” says chamber President Frank DeTillio. “Out of this came the idea to segregate the retention and expansion efforts and also the marketing and attraction efforts, and so we built an organization called Team Lorain County.”

The chamber will continue to focus on small business development support, while Team Lorain County will facilitate the attraction of new business to the region.

DeTillio also strongly supports the idea of collaboration between the various government entities, as well as with private businesses and the college.

Economic development “is not like tennis; it’s not a single-person sport,” he says. “It’s more like football, where there’s a lot of players who can be engaged in a process of trying to successfully create an environment for good, strong, local economy.

“Right now, we’re building the team. After we put this team in place, then we’ve got to make sure that we build the kind of tools that the teams can use so that we can be successful.”

On the rise
While business and job creation are crucial to revitalizing the region, there’s one more aspect that’s equally important — a good quality of life.

“We don’t want to become a bedroom community to some other town,” says Ron Twining, Lorain County’s director of community development. “We want to create our own jobs and have those residents that live here, work here, and enjoy the quality of life that we can afford and will have.”

Quality of life is a significant part of that multi-prong attack to attract people and business to Lorain County.

“If you don’t want to be a bedroom community, you have to provide ... not just jobs, you also have to provide quality-of-life issues — parks, restaurants, shopping experiences,” Cordes says. “The people now are looking for a higher-quality life, and that’s also libraries, schools and bike paths.

“If you have jobs and you don’t have any of those other things, people still don’t stay in your community. At the end of the day, it’s a total package for a community.”

Clearly many of the county’s cities have grasped this idea and expanded on it successfully. Last year, three of Northeast Ohio’s five fastest-growing cities — North Ridgeville, Avon and Amherst — are located in Lorain County.

The county has experienced a new housing boom in the last five years, and although the boom may have peaked, Twining predicts the increased demand will continue for years to come. Between 2000 and 2020, he expects 31,000 new homes to be constructed in the county.

“I think that we’ll fare better than most of the other Northeast Ohio communities,” Twining says. “We can’t lose sight of the fact we’re an important economic development center in the state of Ohio, compared to a whole lot of other counties.”

HOW TO REACH: Lorain County Community College, www.lorainccc.edu; Lorain County Chamber of Commerce, http://www.lorainccc.edu; Lorain County government, www.loraincounty.us/website