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Published: Thursday, 3/4/2004

Area agencies to streamline economic development effort

BY HOMER BRICKEY
BLADE SENIOR BUSINESS WRITER

Top officials of Toledo, Lucas County, and the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority said yesterday they intend to create a countywide economic development agency this year, most likely within Toledo s Regional Growth Partnership.

The officials said it is likely the new entity will absorb development funds and staff from both the city and county, and could divert some funds now used by the growth partnership to expand the development role to include more emphasis on assembling and packaging potential development land.

Such were the recommendations from a long-awaited study of Toledo-area development activities. The study report was released yesterday by Mayor Jack Ford; Harry Barlos, president of the board of Lucas County commissioners; and attorney Tom Palmer, chairman of the port authority. They promised to implement the major suggestions.

It is the first suggested major overhaul of metro Toledo economic development agencies, stemming from a commissioned study, since the growth partnership was created in 1993, initially as a joint venture of the port authority and the Toledo Area Chamber of Commerce.

Local community leaders were given copies of the report yesterday and asked in a letter for ideas and input.

The $132,000 study and 160-page report done by Hammer, Siler, George Associates, an economic analysis and strategy firm based in Silver Spring, Md., was commissioned last summer by the port authority. The port and growth partnership each paid $50,000, and the rest was split by the city and county.

Mr. Palmer said he hopes a final plan for creation of the city-county development unit will be crafted within 60 days, well before the renewal of the port authority s 0.4-mill levy goes on the ballot this November. That levy raises about $2.4 million annually, of which $1.35 million historically has gone to the growth partnership. The port s contribution accounts for nearly half of the 10-year-old partnership s $2.75 million budget.

The Hammer, Siler, George study found a number of strengths in the Toledo area, including development-project funding through the port authority, an excellent regional transportation system, and extensive business-attraction efforts.

However, it also found weaknesses, including unclear roles among the many development agencies, relatively weak small-business development, and lack of a good inventory of potential business-development sites.

The report noted that Toledo is “way behind the national curve on diversity as an economic-development resource.”

The study suggested that future development efforts target important industry clusters, or groupings, such as automotive components, plastics, engineering services, warehousing, advanced manufacturing, and biomedical engineering.

Mayor Ford said he supports the idea of simplifying and streamlining development efforts. “We have maybe nine economic gurus in this area,” he said. “There are too many voices.”

It would be better “to slim it down to one big voice,” he said, even though it could mean Toledo giving up as much as $1.2 million of its current development budget.

The mayor said he is willing to make that trade-off if all can agree on the right organizational structure. He conceded it could have political ramifications, as the city chief is held accountable for job creation, a key offshoot of economic development.

The tentative budget for a combined city-county development effort was estimated at $2.5 million by Hammer, Siler, George. Besides the Toledo contribution, it would require the diversion of about $350,000 from the county, $700,000 from the growth partnership, and $250,000 from the port authority.

The study suggests duties for a staff of 25, or about 10 more than the growth partnership has. However, Mr. Palmer cautioned officials and taxpayers not to home in on that budget figure, as much negotiating will take place in coming months.

There still would be roles for existing organizations, such as transportation issues for the port authority, work force development by the county and area universities, and technology development by the growth partnership, which last year absorbed the 3-year-old Regional Technology Alliance.

Mr. Palmer said, “Each organization came to this with an attitude: We are not going to protect turf.”

Like Mayor Ford, Mr. Barlos said he supports the basic idea. “Our county has lost significant talent in the last 30 years, and it s imperative we start working together,” he said.

Lucas County s population peaked at 480,000 in 1970 and has declined every decade since, to 455,000 currently, he noted.



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