Although the city of Cleveland generally gets most of the attention, and credit, when talk turns to Northeast Ohio’s economy, what happens in Lake County also affects the entire multi-county area. Indeed, the 232-square-mile area has plenty to offer businesses and consumers.
On the map
What gives Lake County an edge is that its residents don’t need to rely on Cleveland for jobs. The region has several viable industries that supply a strong employment and income base. Lake County is not simply a compilation of suburbs where Cleveland workers live. Its residents are happy to live and work there.
“(Lake County has) the second-highest per capita income in the state, and so we’re more than happy to spend it in Cleveland for all the amenities,” says Janice Lipscomb, community development director for the city of Willoughby. “But I think the best way that we drive (the regional economy) is through the employment opportunities and the income that the residents earn and spend in this region. We have a great manufacturing base here, which provides employment throughout the region.”
Both Willoughby and Mentor lay claim to a strong manufacturing presence. The most recent economic census of the region placed Mentor seventh and Willoughby eighth in the state by number of manufacturing companies. They were in the company of cities such as Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo, Akron and Dayton. Mentor was also the tenth-largest manufacturing employer in the state with 7,969 employees.
“We’re certainly a force to be reckoned with,” says Ronald Traub, Mentor’s director of community development.
The city’s industrial area, comprised mostly of Tyler Boulevard, boasts of more than 250 companies from all walks of business.
“For someone that’s looking for space, we have a wide variety of opportunities from multi-tenant small spaces to large, multi-tenant industrial buildings and a fair amount in between,” Traub adds.
Similarly, Mentor is also gaining a strong retail presence. The development of Mentor Commons and Creekside Commons in the mid-1990s brought several big box retailers to complement the already-popular Great Lakes Mall.
“Mentor has always been an attractive area for retail development,” says Traub, “and our success has simply bred more success because retailers want to come in where other retailers have been successful.”
An attractive offer
So what makes Lake County so appealing to businesses?
Mentor in particular has been further bolstered by improved freeway access, including the addition of an interchange at state Route 2 and Heisley Road and the construction of an interchange at state Route 615 from Interstate 90 in November of 2003.
But besides the access to highways and the proximity to several airports and the city of Cleveland, Lipscomb says it’s the business-friendly governments. The majority of city governments in Lake County are proactive for business and are always looking for new opportunities.
“Getting any kind of approval process through [Willoughby’s] city council is fairly easy,” says Lipscomb. “We help business get through the planning commission process as fast as possible.”
Then there are the tax abatements and incentives often used to lure businesses to the area.
“Mentor was an early and aggressive user of the tax abatement program,” says Traub. “One of the nuances of our tax abatement agreements was that companies that received this had to provide both a work experience as well as a scholarship with Lakeland Community College.
“We recognized the need for a trained labor force if we’re going to successfully compete in the 21st century. The real economic future of places like Mentor or Lake County is not necessarily the number of jobs but the skilled laborers that we’re able to either retain or create. So our inducements, rather than being oriented towards the number of jobs they had during the 1990s, our incentives are now focused on total payroll.”
But there’s one thing that these city officials seem to value more than anything else, and that’s the quality of life in their communities.
“We have amenities to support all of the employees,” says Lipscomb. “We’ve got the historic downtown, restaurants, parks everything to support the quality of life for employees that a business would bring in.”
Thomas Thielman, Mentor’s economic development director, says he likes to tell prospective businesses about what a great place Mentor, and Lake County as a whole, is to raise a family.
Thielman knows what kinds of things are important to a business’s employees good schools, good housing, recreational opportunities and he believes the communities in Lake County, specifically Mentor, have them all.
In fact, the city was attractive enough to convince Avery Dennison, a global leader in pressure-sensitive technology, self-adhesive base materials and self-adhesive consumer and office products, to move its Roll Materials Worldwide and Fasson Roll North America headquarters to the Newell Creek development currently under construction near state Route 615 and I-90. The company is expected to occupy 130,000 square feet of office and laboratory space, as well as 20,000 square feet for Avery Dennison’s new R&D facility. Approximately 500 employees, generating an estimated $40 million payroll annually, will occupy the headquarters when construction is finished.
From the ground up
There’s one final aspect of Lake County that can’t be ignored, and that’s the revenue generated from the county’s agricultural sector. Thanks to the fertile soil and the right blend of climate and topography, nurseries and wineries also plays an important role in how Lake County contributes to the regional economy.
In 2004, $95 million in revenue was generated from nurseries and grape growers, says Don Aldson, an administrator with the Lake County Soil & Water Conservation District.
“We only have about 19,000 acres in agricultural production, but we’re consistently in the top 10, usually in the top five, as far as agricultural revenues [in Ohio],” he says. “We’ve got the highest per farm income in the state at around $326,000 a farm, compared to the state average of $56,000.”
There are more than 115 nurseries in the county as well as eight commercial grape producers, most of whom are under contract with Welch’s for jelly and juice production.
The five wineries in Lake County create a veritable tourism region, attracting thousands of visitors every year. These are also complemented by the neighboring wineries just across Ashtabula County’s border in Geneva and Harpersfield Township.
While many regions cling to one major industry or have just one claim to fame, Lake County possesses a unique combination of strengths that that allow it to contribute in numerous ways to Northeast Ohio’s economy. The region has plenty of viable employment and all the qualities to continue to attract more.
“We have ambitious plans for the future,” says Traub. “We want to continue to be the community that offers a superior quality of life, that continues to offer good services both to the business and residential community. And that can only be achieved if it’s based on a healthy economy.”
HOW TO REACH: Mentor Economic Development Office, (440) 974-5739; Willoughby Economic Development Office, (440) 953-4191