Is Sandusky's future all wet?
The construction and opening of new indoor waterparks such as Great Wolf Lodge, Castaway Bay, Kalahari and Rain give the local economy a boost.
But many community leaders are determined to make sure the health of the economy -- which once offered solid futures in manufacturing for area residents -- doesn't depend solely on tourism. Local leaders are awakening to the realization that they must act before it's too late to reverse the direction the local economy has taken.
"Looking in from the outside, as I did a little more than two years ago, the economic future of our region looked frightening," said Doug Phares, who became publisher of the Sandusky Register two and half years ago and is a member of a group that proposed forming Grow Erie County, a new economic development organization.
"Auto industry in major contraction and population declining are signals of impending trouble," Phares said. "Couple that with the fractured relationships between cities, townships and the county and you have a recipe for disaster. Everyone thought they were in charge of development, but no one, not a single entity, had a real plan that was being implemented for the good of all."
An economic development plan can take years to take effect, Phares observed.
"We simply didn't have any more time to wait," he said.
Many of Erie County's economic development leaders are well-known community figures, such as GEM Executive Director Mark Litten and departing Sandusky City Manager Mike Will.
But many others who get much less press also are working to aid the area's future. They include John Kovach, who is leading efforts to fill Quarry Lakes Business Park, and Anne Hinton, who believes libraries have a role to play in economic development.
A SENSE OF URGENCY
Their efforts, and the efforts by businessmen and politicians behind the Grow Erie County initiatives, are driven by a sense of urgency stemming from uncertainty over the fate of the two large auto parts plants, Delphi and Automotive Components Holdings, which are slated to be sold or closed.
The Grow Erie County plan, formed as one response to the call for action, seeks uniting private and public development efforts behind a "one stop shop," where any company seeking to locate or expand in Erie County could obtain help and get its questions answered.
The situation also has inspired individual efforts to create jobs.
John Kovach, president of Comprehensive Development Solutions in Findlay, is trying to replicate some of the success he had in creating jobs in Findlay.
Similar to Sandusky, Findlay is a northern Ohio city facing the decline of established manufacturing plants. The difference between the cities is that the Hancock County community decided long ago that relying on aging industries would not be good enough. More than two decades later, Findlay is touted as a Rust Belt success story.
Hancock County now consistently records low unemployment rates in statistics issued by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. For example, the unemployment rate in April was 6.1 percent in Erie County and 4.6 percent in Hancock County.
"The old saying is, if you move to Findlay and you can't get a job, you don't want to work," Kovach said.
The effort to build up and diversify the Findlay economy began in the early 1980s, when the city realized it was too dependent upon Marathon Oil.
"Community leaders decided we need to start thinking about the future," Kovach said.
FINDLAY'S PROGRESSIVE APPROACH
Findlay, about an hour and a half drive southwest of Sandusky, adopted a conscious strategy that it would not try to recruit companies with more than 250 employees, said Edward "Ned" Hill, a professor and distinguished scholar of economic development at Cleveland State University.
"They understood if they got one huge employer, the economic well being of that community was completely dependent on the business strategy of that one firm," Hill said.
Kovach was hired in 1983 to run the Findlay-Hancock County Community Development Foundation, where he served until 1997, helping to build and fill two industrial parks and an office park.
"I sort of worked myself out of a job," he said.
Today, Kovach has taken the lead in trying to fill Quarry Lakes Business Park, a privately-owned business park entered from Ohio 101 near Ohio 2, that was developed with the help of Erie County and Margaretta Township leaders.
Businesses that have opened operations at Quarry Lakes, include North Coast Cancer Center, Citizens Bank, Encore Plastics and Northern Ohio Education Computer Association. The business park has about 155 acres, with seven lots sold and 20 lots still available. Kovach said he hopes to make more announcements soon.
ASK AN EXPERT
Libraries aren't normally considered economic development hotbeds. But the local economy has inspired many local leaders to take matters into their own hands.
Hinton, director of Huron Public Library, said that as a resident of the Huron community she wants to see growth and development in the community. She considers the library's role in providing education and information for the community as going beyond lending books.
After discussing economic development with local experts, Hinton arranged for the library to offer sessions for local residents interested in starting new businesses.
"We've kind of evolved into an 'Ask a business expert' format," Hinton said.
Every few weeks, the library hosts a session to provide advice, providing an attorney, a banker, a business plan expert and other experts to answer questions. Hinton hopes the library's efforts will buoy the local economy some day.
The first meeting drew 15 people, while the second meeting attracted two people interested in starting businesses.
"Those two folks got a lot of attention," Hinton said.
Other community efforts to address local economy changes are found on the campuses of EHOVE and BGSU Firelands.
Much of the responsibility of training young adults -- a necessary aspect of a healthy economy and a factor employers consider when looking to relocate to a community -- in job skills falls upon the two schools. They provide skills for young people seeking local health care, technology, trade and service jobs.
EHOVE has 700 on-campus high school students. Superintendent Sharon Mastroiann said while 48 percent of this year's graduating class planned to go on to college or the military, 52 percent planned to seek immediate employment.
She said that it is up to the school to ensure that those seeking to stay in the area are able to find jobs with their two years of training.
"It's critical our career tech programs lead them into immediate job placements," she said.
To make sure the classes stay current and match employers' needs, each program maintains an advisory committee staffed by local business people. Each committee's job is to keep a finger on the pulse of the economy.
Beyond the high school students, the school also serves to help adults looking to retool their resumes and train for hot jobs in our area. EHOVE has just under 700 full-time adult students, many of whom are enrolled in career programs such as nursing or law enforcement. Another 1,500 part-time students are expanding existing job skills.
BGSU Firelands keeps abreast of those area hot jobs, tailoring college programs to meet community needs.
Associate Dean Jim Smith said he tracks Ohio's statistics on "high employment prospects" occupations in Ohio -- jobs that pay at least $12 an hour and have at least 75 annual openings. The state lists 14 hot occupations requiring an associate degree. BGSU Firelands offers degrees in eight of the 14, Smith notes.
The eight are computer support specialists, electrical and electronic engineering technicians, industrial engineering technicians, mechanical engineering technicians, registered nurses, respiratory therapists, radiology technologists and technicians and medical records and health information technicians.
Smith said he carefully studies the numbers when the state releases them with an eye toward adjusting the school's offerings.
"We didn't have computer support specialist two years ago," he said. "That's new."
With these efforts and more, Kovach said he's optimistic the Sandusky area can replicate Findlay's success in growing new jobs.
Erie County can offer good transportation, good schools, a world-class business park and a pro-business attitude among local government leaders, he said.
Because its location is not far from Cleveland, "you have all of the advantages of a big city, but a small town atmosphere," he said.
In contrast to Findlay, Sandusky has Lake Erie to offer -- great opportunities for recreation and the ability to lure white collar and professional jobs to the waterfront city.
"I think there are tremendous opportunities," Kovach said.
Tom Jackson 5/31/07 pullout for part three of Economic Development Series
Economic development Web sites
*Greater Erie Marketing Group: www.gem.org
Includes information on current projects, available industrial parks and business sites, and the recent community audit.
*Huron Public Library Business Resource Network: www.huronlibrary.org/brn.html
Large collection of resources and links for local residents who are trying to start a business.
*Erie County Chamber of Commerce: www.eriecountyohiocofc.com
Information on the chamber and events of interest to the business community
*Erie County Commissioner goals: www.erie-county-ohio.net/commiss...
Includes commissioners' 2007 goals for economic development
*Sandusky Marina District: www.ci.sandusky.oh.us/MarinaDist...
Sandusky's waterfront development plan
*Sandusky Main Street Association: www.sanduskymainstreet.com
Seeks to develop downtown and waterfront