Presented with support from:

GAR Foundation

By WKSU's Kevin Niedermier

Monday, February 20, 2006

Good paying manufacturing jobs in Northeast Ohio are evaporating, leaving communities with vacant factories that once generated tax revenues as well as tires, steel and other goods. This manufacturing decline started in the 1970's, and has left many area communities scrambling to attract new jobs and maintain basic city services. The situation is fueling more interest in regional cooperation across Northeast Ohio, but the concept of reaching across city and county borders to share resources means abandoning old ideas about sovereignty. In part one of our series, "Beyond the Limits: The Regional View," we examine those perceptions and attitudes.


(Click for larger view.)

The communities of Parma, Parma Heights, Berea, Brook Park, and Middleburg Heights are working out a plan to possibly combine their fire departments.
(Image Courtesy of Cuyahoga County)

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It's hard to find anyone in Northeast Ohio who does not support some kind of regional cooperation as businesses,residents and their tax dollars flee to more economically fertile areas.
Shara Davis is Project Director for Voices and Choices, a program that's engaging thousands of Northeast Ohioans in helping plan this region's economic future. The groups surveys show 87-percent of residents in the 15 county area believe working together is now necessary.
Davis says one thing that has emerged from talks with hundreds of citizens in the region is that they feel the area has many pluses, but that there is a tendency to cling to the bygone glory days of heavy manufacturing.

Davis: "We tend to be closed minded. We tend to hold on too tightly to the past. We tend to be resistant change. We're down on ourselves, how we portray ourselves externally influences the image everyone else has of Northeast Ohio. So they said we need...we know we need to change the attitudes of Northeast Ohio."

Those surveyed say the region needs to leverage its new strengths in the medical, bio-tech and polymer industries, and they believe more cooperation between cash-strapped cities and towns is needed. This patron at Gus's Chalet, a restaurant and bar in Akron, agrees. But like many others, he sees a snag.

Patron: "Ridiculous, how many fire departments do we have in Summit County? How many's just ridiculous that we don't have a regional government. But I don't know who you'd get to run you'd have to break it down...but that would be something different. But the regional thing, as a matter of fact it should probably go all the way to Cleveland. We should be in the Cleveland region if you wanted to really get economical about it."

Niedermier: "What do you think the odds are of that happening?"

Patron: "Not a prayer, it ain't never going to happen, not until after the country goes bankrupt or something. No it's not going to happen, but it should happen, because nobody's going to vote for it, because a fire chief in every community, he wants to keep his own little thing going. He doesn't want to be a lieutenant in a regional fire department when he's a chief at a local thing, no. But it's not going to happen but it should happen."

Cleveland's recently elected Mayor, Frank Jackson.....

Jackson: "I think it's a natural reaction. I imagine the average man on the street, they are speaking from what they would do if they were there too. We're in a situation now where in order for us to survive as a city and a region, we're going to have to go beyond these...the selfishness of it and look at what is in the best interest of the city and the region. Now my job as the Mayor of the city of Cleveland is to represent Cleveland, and that's what I intend to do. But if someone brings me a cooperative agreement, or some revenue sharing initiative that I believe is in the best interest of the city, that also serves the best interest of the region, I'm open to it."

Jackson will soon name a regional economic development director to his cabinet, a first for a Cleveland mayor. Jackson also makes a strong distinction between regional economic cooperation and regional government. He says regionalizing government makes it too hard for average citizens to have a say in public decisions.
Interest in regional cooperation is just starting to gain steam. But signs of it are not hard to find according to Parma Heights Mayor Marty Zonotti, whose city shares a recreation center and community theater with neighboring Parma.

Zonotti: "I think you take regional cooperation on different levels. We recently polled the 57 cities in Cuyahoga County, and found over 600 instances where cities are working together with other cities on things like, anything from purchasing salt to paper products, to recreation facilities, to even mutual dispatch of the fire departments. So there's a lot going on now. I think the challenge we have is to do it in a way that significantly affects the cost of government."

Zonotti is co-chairman of the Cuyahoga County Mayors and Managers Association's Regionalism Committee. The group has completed a study showing Parma Heights and four neighboring cities could save significant funds by combining fire departments.

Zonotti: "In the state of Ohio, we are 48th I believe in education, but we're number one in the country with the number of towns, villages and cities. So I think people recognize there's too much government. I think what we have to do is do it in a way that gives them the security that they're going to be well taken care of. And I think that's why you choose fire over police. Police is very parochial, everybody wants their own police department. Now, someday they might not be able to have that, but by creating a district, what people generally care about is...when I dial 9-11 the paramedic is there within four minutes, and I think that's a safer way to go."

If the five cities that agreed to support combining their fire and rescue departments,
Zonotti says the program could be in place by early 2008. Similar proposals are also being considered by other cities in the county, as well as land banks and anti-business poaching agreements.
But regionalism can mean different things to different people. For instance, when asked about his feelings on the subject, Lorain County resident Mark Eulang said he strongly supports it and wants to see more regional events like a local pot-luck dinners. While not regionalism in the typical sense, socializing could play a role in boosting cooperation between Northeast Ohio communities. According to Shara Davis of Voices and Choices, surveys show Northeast Ohioans are very interested in reaching out to each other.

Davis: "We're people who have traditionally been neighbors helping neighbors, and we value that very much. We still like community gatherings, and we want to get back to more community gatherings. We like the connectedness across this region in terms know, people we're talking about, we need things like a better regional public transportation system. It's because of that sense of know, valuing all that exists across Northeast Ohio...not just in one community verses another."

Davis says most Northeast Ohioans treasure the wide range of activities, from a world class orchestra to Amish farms. And compared with people in most other regions of the country, she says people here have a stronger sense of place. Over 50-percent profess high loyalty to Northeast Ohio and a strong desire to do whatever is necessary to halt its decline.