SECOND SUNDAY: New development director sees potential

SANDUSKY When Brian Coughlin looks at Erie County, he sees new jobs. The new executiv
Tom Jackson
May 24, 2010



When Brian Coughlin looks at Erie County, he sees new jobs.

The new executive director for the Erie County Economic Development Corp., who came on board Aug. 27, says few other places in the country can easily offer lots of fresh water for businesses that need it for manufacturing. And he says he's amazed ECEDC's Web site, scheduled for major renovations soon, doesn't mention NASA Plum Brook Station, which gives Erie County instant credibility in the world of high technology.

"When you can say you've got the largest deep space vacuum chamber in the world, that's meaningful," he said.

Coughlin, 62, said his first priority is to launch the new Web site because it's the first thing potential companies will see. He also plans to update ECEDC's list of available properties and vacant buildings, which he said leaves out many possible business locations.

Third, Coughlin said he'll update the studies ECEDC commissioned on how to attract new jobs to the area. All of the studies came out before the recession, so many of their assumptions likely are outdated, he said.

Coughlin, picked after ECEDC's board went through 100 resumes, was director of economic development for five years in Butler County, between Cincinnati and Dayton.

While there, Coughlin helped bring in an Amylin Pharmaceuticals manufacturing plant that created 500 high-paying jobs. He also helped attract a $55 million headquarters for GE Aviation, creating 1,400 jobs.

Coughlin replaces Mark Litten, who left in March after eight years on the job.

Q. What do we have to offer here that other counties don't have?

A. Fresh water. We have both treated and untreated water.

Treated water is no good for production processes like chips for computers. You need untreated. We've got one pipe that's there, it's been there since World War II. It's 42 inches. And another one that's there, 42 inches. Combined, they can bring in 34 million gallons a day. That makes us unique. There's a lot of counties and cities on the Great Lakes. Not one that's got that infrastructure in there. There's no eminent domain issues trying to bring that ashore. That's a huge asset.

Q. There's an awful lot of dry areas in the country that don't have a lot of water.

A. This is the Wall Street Journal from two weeks ago, Aug. 24. (Coughlin points to a headline that reads, "Water cops crack down in drought areas.")

And the drought areas of course are the southeast United States, although they're not quite as bad this year, Texas, and southern California. Some of those have been in trouble for three years. If you've got a business that relies on water for any kind of process .... I'd be looking for places with fresh water. Most of the cities on the Great Lakes don't have what we have. Yeah, great, you can see it, but you can't pump it in.

Q. What attracted you about this job?

A. Well, it was employment versus unemployment. (Butler County shut down its economic development department and laid off Coughlin in March to cope with a budget deficit.)

We lived not too far from here when I was with BP. We had said if we could ever get back to the lake, we'd like to do it, and it worked out for us. We moved into a house three weeks ago.

Q. So you can sell that by-the-lake lifestyle out of conviction?

A. I'm four doors from the lake. In a very modest house, but four doors from the lake.

Q. There was a meeting held with Huron County and Ottawa County to talk about whether the three counties should join forces for economic development. Do you have any thoughts on that?

A. I think there's a sense, given the economy and everybody has to be really tight with their dollars, it makes some sense to try to combine assets. We refer to each other on leads -- you can't satisfy the needs, but maybe Lorain County can.

But not another layer ... We can't support it. A confederation, I think, is maybe a good word.

Q. People here worry about the loss of manufacturing and the auto parts companies that are here have been steadily shrinking for years. The areas where we've really seen the growth in Erie County are in health care jobs, retailing and tourism. Are you confident that manufacturing can continue to play a significant role in job creation in Erie County?

A. Manufacturing is down in Erie County, in Ohio and in the Midwest. It is what it is. Can that improve? I think there's a lot of outsourcing that's starting to come back to this country. It's not just back room office services. I read just a few weeks ago, a guy that makes hair curlers, but he makes them with ceramics. He had a Korean plant, then he moved it to China, now he's moving it back to the United States. He may have higher labor, but as for just-in-time deliveries, he thinks he'll make that up. I think some of that's going to happen.

Just drive down Perkins Road or anyplace. There's a lot of what looks like 20 to 50 employee businesses. That's where the job creation comes from.

Big plants? Will we ever see another big auto assembly plant here? I don't think so. I was actually surprised that that one went to Indiana for Honda.

We had a business in Southwest Ohio that started 20 years ago with 10 employees. It's got about 700 now. That's the kind of organic growth I think I'd like to see here, and like to help.

Q. What can people in the community do to help ECEDC foster economic growth and job creation?

A. First of all, I think we're going to have to earn that endorsement, and that feel-good kind of attitude toward the community, through communication, through performance and through results.

The first thing people are going to notice is when we launch the Web site. Whether it's a month or two months from now, it will be very different, and sophisticated, and outstanding tool. Not because I'm so creative, but because I know what works.

I'd like to ask their support now, but I'd rather ask it in six months, after we've had an opportunity to make some changes here.