|Regional cooperation has long revolved around communities playing nice to convince some large business to move here. But now it’s about simply paying bills. Northeast Ohio’s economy is not the powerhouse it was in the 1960’s but we still spend like it is. Here’s the way the president of the Fund for Our Economic Future, a group of philanthropists puts it.
“I’d assert that our enemy in this game here is concrete. And I don’t mean like practical or tangible. I mean literally concrete.”
Brad Whitehead is talking about infrastructure costs. He calls our land use patterns “a silent killer” of the local economy.
“The rate at which we are developing land has been 70 times the rate and which our population has grown. Which means when that happens you have to build bridges; you got to repair old bridges. You got to build sewers; you got to repair old sewers. You got to build schools; you got to repair old schools. It means that we’re adding more and more infrastructure costs on to serve a fixed population which again means money is not being able to be used to fix other things.”
Even business people are starting to like environmentalists. The CEO of the economic development organization Team NEO Tom Waltermire , likens our sprawl to a drug
"So we’ve got this combination of this economy that’s not growing and creating enough value and enough prosperity to pay for our infrastructure habit.”
Controlling land use
Former Cleveland City planner Hunter Morrison now works for a group called the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium. His organization is working on air quality, housing, transportation and land use planning.
“If you want to understand how to control sprawl go down to Wayne County. They’ve written the book. They control sprawl because they value agricultural land and they make a lot of money on ag land. If you go to Google Earth Wayne County and look at the communities there you’ll find it looks like Tuscany. There is no sprawl and there’s no sprawl because about 15 years ago they stopped extending sewer lines and made hard decisions about preserving the integrity of their economy, which is agriculturally-based.”
Morrison says a good sign for regional efforts is that some smaller cities are beginning to drop their economic development departments to work as a team. There are 59 cities in Cuyahoga County and Executive Ed Fitzgerald says his office for the first time has a fund to attract businesses and he’s authored a no-poaching agreement with over 30 cities. He now wants to establish a menu of options for local leaders to choose from . .
“So what’s changing I think for the first time in this whole long, almost century-old discussion in my county is that there really is going to be a way to measure local leadership – not what did they say but have they actually done to collaborate with their neighbors.”
Fitzgerald looks to Summit County as a model. There, the county health department merged with those in Akron and Barberton to form just one. The county also merged building departments to cover 23 of the 31 communities. Summit County Executive Russ Pry also mentions a social services effort called “First Things First.”
"Which has now brought over 40 different providers of early childhood who came together and agreed to collaborate and work on an early childhood plan, which has really given us a great platform to move forward on early childhood needs. The studies show that for every dollar we spend on early childhood we get a 16 or 17 dollar return.”
Summit County helped in creation of the Austin BioInnovation Institute to create bio-med companies. But even that was formed by hospitals that usually compete with each other.
That kind of cooperation is spreading to higher education. Shawn Brown of the NE Ohio Council on Higher Education. He argues that an increase in college graduates is necessary for the region’s economic health
“The higher education institutions want to find ways to work with each other across their city, county, even state borders and find ways between business and to work together because a single institution in higher education can only make so many cuts or create so many new programs on its own before it eventually needs to collaborate with others.”
Just today (Tuesday) Cuyahoga Community College announced an agreement with the United Steelworkers Union and ArcelorMittal to create a local program that trains students for technical manufacturing jobs.
While it all sounds good, these leaders say every region in the country is now working together to attract businesses or improve their quality of life. Tom Tyrrell of an organization called the Regional Prosperity Initiative says he’s lived in 18 cities and Northeast Ohio was definitely working at cross purposes...
“We finally taking our resources and getting the most disparate place I have ever seen to focus on specific things to be able to go out and accomplish those things. And to me, in the last 3 or 4 years for a lot of reasons that change has taken place but primarily it’s taken place because we had no choice.”
Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald would like to see local communities forced to cooperate through the federal or state governments setting budgets that offer incentives for it. He’ll see if his eleven county council members believe in sacrificing for the greater good. He hopes to reach agreements with them over money the county will receive from the Cleveland casino. Rather than being divided up for each council ward, FitzGerald wants the money spent on bolstering downtown Cleveland
“If you take a pool of money like that – and you spread it out eventually it’s like peanut butter – if you spread it so thin that you don’t really have any impact. It’s a very understandable temptation for council people and so I expect it to come up. So far it hasn’t. “
Fitzgerald will find that out as Council holds committee hearings on the subject this week.