Business and civic leaders in Ashtabula County, Ohio, are charting a new, more focused effort to boost the county's economy and labor force.
Through the Growth Partnership for Ashtabula County, a group of 60 business, public, educational and philanthropic partners, they have identified the county's most pressing economic dilemmas and are rolling up their sleeves to plot a three-year course of action to make some headway.
While unemployment in this county of 100,000 people has declined, at 5.6 percent in November, it is still well above Cuyahoga (3.9 percent), Geauga (3 percent) and Lake (3.3 percent) counties to the east, though typical of neighbors to the south and east.
At a meeting Dec. 15 at the Spire Institute in Geneva that was attended by more than 100 civic leaders, Don Iannone, the partnership's executive director, and economist James Trutko opened a campaign to kickstart a civic effort to bring that rate down.
“You're losing talent,” Trutko said as he started a data-heavy slideshow on the state of the county economy. “I'm worried that the downward lines will continue without an action plan.”
The county's economic problems are not unique, but this leadership group is going the extra mile to analyze them and plot a course forward. The members of the growth partnership have developed a strategic plan and have created a dashboard — an online, visual economic scoreboard — to help leaders set goals and keep an eye on their progress.
The planning work began in August 2014 with the hiring of Iannone, a former director of the Economic Development Center at Cleveland State University and an economic development consultant with a national practice.
The key issues, Iannone and Trutko explained, are the need to offset a loss of employment in key sectors, the decline in the number of businesses in the county and the slow pace of new business formation.
“We have a tremendous number of organizations that support economic and community development,” said Scott Becker, the president of the board of directors of the nonprofit economic development organization, after the presentation.
“What we don't have is a countywide focus on a couple of key items to move the needle in the right direction.”
Becker is president and CEO of Chromaflo Technologies Corp., one of the county's largest manufacturers, which makes colorants and pigment dispersal systems for the architectural and industrial applications.
The county has a diversified economic base. It's led by manufacturing, which includes firms like Chromaflo, Molded Fiber Glass Co. and Kennametal Inc. Manufacturing represents about 31% of the county's economic output. Government, health care and other social services combined generate about 21% of local output. Within manufacturing, the chemical and plastics industries provide the anchor.
Trutko said the county can build on its plastics and chemicals base, but it also needs to bolster its underdeveloped service sector. The focus, though, should be on businesses with geographically diverse customer bases.
“You want (new) businesses that have a regional or national market that will bring dollars into your county,” he said. “And you have to look at extending the reach” of local businesses.
Although the county unemployment rate has declined, Trutko said the rebuilding of the workforce hasn't kept pace with the region or the rest of the country. Data gathered by the growth partnership show the county has been losing between 350 and 500 people from the labor force annually. Some stopped looking for work or couldn't find a job, while some found work outside the county.
“The whole workforce/talent issue is critical,” Iannone said. “We need to be attracting skilled people to Ashtabula.”
Iannone believes the county's low cost of living and small-town quality of life near metropolitan areas like Cleveland and Buffalo, as well as the recreational opportunities along Lake Erie, can be selling points.
As important, Iannone said, was building up the skills of kids coming out of the local high schools so that, if they aren't going on to college, they can meet the needs of local manufacturers, some of whom are facing workforce shortages. But the Ashtabula workforce is slightly less educated than the average Ohio workforce.
“The school systems have made progress, but we need more,” he said.
We've managed to bring in some top talent,” he said. “But more fundamentally, we have a problem attracting just quality mid-level and even operational people.
“I have 30 temporaries in my building right now,” he said. “I shouldn't have any. All these other manufacturers who are here have the same problem.”
While it will continue to work to attract new businesses to the county, the strategic plan emphasizes helping existing businesses grow, since those companies typically account for nearly 60% of new jobs.
Ken Johnson, general manager of Greatwave Communications, the local telephone and Internet service company, said in a later telephone interview that keeping businesses alive and local can be difficult. Many businesses were started in the 20 years after World War II, and those entrepreneurs are ready for retirement and can't count on keeping them in the family and local.
“Kids grow up and look at the economic realities and go, ‘This isn't what I want to do,' ” Johnson said. “So the owner gets older and he doesn't have anybody to hand the business off to, and all too often those businesses close.”