“Moving Ohio forward” was the topic of conversation in the Lenhart Grand Ballroom Nov. 28. Hosted by Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher and the Ohio Department of Development, two sessions on creating Ohio’s “Economic Development Strategy Framework” brought 130 business leaders and regional development officials together to discuss business needs, regional initiatives and priorities, and how the state government can help spur work-force and economic development.
Meeting as a whole and then in small groups, the participants engaged in candid conversations. Staff members from the Department of Development captured their comments on paper. Fisher, who as lieutenant governor also holds the title of director of the department, said he and his staff would take all those comments back to Columbus for review and to help in formulating the state’s next strategy for growth.
Gov. Ted Strickland visited the afternoon session to hear what the attendees had identified as top priorities and concerns, along with their suggestions for what those in Columbus might do. In today’s economic climate, the state faces “Herculean” challenges, he said. But “instead of wilting in the face of such challenges,” he added, “as Buckeyes we will only try harder to overcome them.”
Ohio also has tremendous opportunities, Strickland said, listing natural resources and plenty of water, location, transportation infrastructure, a long history of manufacturing and a strong work ethic among them.
Energy is both an opportunity and an area where Ohio needs to improve, he said. While it is the fifth-largest user of electricity among the states and the fourth largest consumer of electricity for industry, Ohio does not produce anywhere near its capacity and must seriously consider alternative forms of energy for the future in order to be competitive.
A major opportunity for northwest Ohio is solar energy, the governor noted. First Solar, in Perrysburg, is the largest manufacturer of photovoltaic panels and solar equipment in the United States.
“We are on the ground floor of an industry that will be universal,” said one of the participants, but added that Ohio risks losing that opportunity if it does not soon develop an advanced, renewable-energy portfolio, something many other states have already created.
Some of the other needs and suggestions that arose were:
• Education, an area of concern voiced by the participants and Strickland alike. Students need to be exposed much earlier to a wider array of careers—in a hands-on way—and must understand the evolving nature of manufacturing, which participants stressed is no longer a dirty, heavy job but more often one using high-tech equipment in clean surroundings. It was agreed that the state needs to provide schools, particularly guidance counselors, the resources to do more career preparation. Education must be targeted to the needs of the state, they concurred, including cooperation between universities and businesses.
“There is a misalignment between the jobs that exist and the skill level of the people who are seeking employment,” Strickland agreed, giving the example of the several thousand nurses now needed for hospitals, nursing homes and home health care. Appointing Eric Fingerhut chancellor of the University System of Ohio was a first step to meet the needs of Ohio citizens for education regardless of their age or vocational interests, he added.
• International trade. While trade missions are positive, what is more helpful is specific information and matching of Ohio’s assets and industry clusters to those of other countries, particularly for smaller companies that must rely more on the state for help in internationalizing. “The state could teach us how to be more effective in reaching other markets,” one member said. In addition to the 14 offices the state currently has abroad, three new ones—in Australia, India and Hong Kong—are planned, the group heard.
Likewise, identifying and matching Ohio’s assets with the interests of foreign companies seeking to start businesses in the United States would be an important step, they said. As one participant pointed out, with the 10,000 displaced, skilled workers now in the state as the result of the loss of manufacturing, Ohio has a lot to offer in terms of work force.
• Up to date, reliable labor information is needed from the state to help businesses plan better. Too often, statistics are old or inaccurate, the group said.
• Promoting collaboration between regions and between businesses. The group was unanimous in calling for incentives to motivate partnerships for mutual benefit. Developing comprehensive plans for regions would aid growth and steward resources, they said.
• Moving the office of work-force development out of the welfare department and back into the Department of Development. Realigning those two would result in a cultural shift that would promote more growth, a participant said. Strickland responded that this is under consideration.
“From all indications, the day was a resounding success,” said Dr. James Michael Smith, vice president for economic development and regional growth, following the event. "The planning sessions today were a testimonial to the Ohio Department of Development's desire to gather community input with respect to moving Ohio forward. Tough economic times have been seen throughout the state. With collaborative efforts like those witnessed today, Ohio can and will improve economically.
“Personally, I found it refreshing to hear the many comments regarding university-business collaboration. BGSU is working hard to make that a ‘signature’ for our two campuses. I look forward to continued dialogue with Gov. Strickland, Lt. Gov. Fisher and many of those in attendance today on that topic and many more."
Smith organized the event with the help of Sandra MacNevin, associate vice president for governmental relations and engagement; Amy Davis, MacNevin’s office manager, and the staff of the union.