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Published: 12/8/2008

Challenges greet Findlay's new chief of development

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

FINDLAY - Before Ray DeWinkle was even on the payroll as GreaterFindlay Inc.'s new president and chief executive officer, he was in a town meeting with Cooper Tire about the future of its Findlay manufacturing plant.

With 19 years experience in economic development in Grand Rapids, Mich., Mr. DeWinkle knows retention and expansion of existing business is at least two-thirds of the job. Retaining Cooper Tire and the 1,100 manufacturing jobs it provides in Findlay, has been his No. 1 priority.

"We're doing everything possible," he said of the concerted effort to keep Cooper, which plans to close one of its four U.S. plants. "We're leaving no stone unturned. Will it be enough? I'll tell you after they make an announcement."

Fighting for the future of one of the city's largest employers isn't Mr. DeWinkle's only challenge ahead.

On the job officially just three weeks, Mr. DeWinkle walked into a debate among city and county officials over just how effective GreaterFindlay - a combination of the community development foundation, the chamber of commerce, and the convention and visitors bureau - has been and whether the city was getting a good return on its investment in the public-private organization.

The city historically has earmarked half of its hotel-motel tax revenues, about $175,000 a year, to GreaterFindlay for economic development services, while Hancock County, by law, must allocate all of its hotel-motel tax revenues, or about $300,000 a year, to the convention and visitors bureau to market Hancock County.

Mayor Pete Sehnert's recent recommendation to reduce city funding to GreaterFindlay to just $25,000 a year was nixed by a majority of City Council. But, with the city facing its own financial difficulties, council is expected to vote Dec. 16 on a proposed two-year contract that allocates just $50,000 to GreaterFindlay in the first year. The allocation for the second year would be negotiable.

Sixth Ward Councilman Bill Schedel, who has been a vocal critic of GreaterFindlay, said that when the city is laying off workers, he cannot justify giving even $50,000 to the organization.

"We're trying to put together a budget based on what we know today," he said. "If Cooper closes, that's 1,100 potential taxpayers who won't be paying income tax. I want to be fiscally responsible to my constituents, the residents of the city. I'd like to believe in GreaterFindlay Inc. and I know you've got to spend money to make money, but right now is not the time to ask for a boatload of money."

Mr. Sehnert said he stands by his contention that Findlay was not getting its money's worth from GreaterFindlay, and he believes it "won't get anything less" by reducing its financial contribution.

GreaterFindlay derives more than half of its nearly $1.2 million budget from private sources, including membership dues and event proceeds.

"It's just economic. We're trying to save as much money as we can," the mayor said. "It is a drastic cut. I agree we have to stay in the game with them. That's why I thought $25,000 was enough."

Randy Lohoff, vice president of corporate responsibility for Marathon Petroleum Co. and chairman of GreaterFindlay's board, defends the organization's record for working with businesses and said he believes Findlay simply tends to have higher expectations for itself.

"If you put it in perspective, Findlay has done very well relative to our neighbors, and we're well-positioned to continue that growth and prosperity in the future," Mr. Lohoff said. "I think [Mayor Sehnert] recognizes that. We've just had a period where we haven't had as good of communication and a firm direction."

In June, GreaterFindlay lost both its longtime president and CEO Doug Peters, who took a new job in North Carolina, and its executive vice president Russ Rogerson, who also took a job outside Ohio. Mr. DeWinkle said he's pretty sure he won't be filling the vice president's job based on the cut in city funding.

"We're not going to have the full bench strength that we'd like to have," Mr. DeWinkle said. "You've got to cut back your programs somewhere or staffing somewhere To think that it won't impact our ability to deliver results is false. You take that much out of a budget, it has an impact. It's that simple."

Still, he said he accepted the job in Findlay because of the potential he saw here: a bustling downtown, a diverse employer base that included Japanese transplant companies, the University of Findlay, the new Owens Community College campus, and a flood mitigation partnership that's working to get a handle on the city's age-old flooding problems.

Mr. DeWinkle said it's his goal to better communicate to the city and county what GreaterFindlay is doing and work with other agencies in town - something that didn't always happen in the past.

Hancock County Commissioner Ed Ingold said his board has been talking with Hancock Regional Planning about assuming some economic development duties in part because of a concern that outlying communities like Bluffton and Fostoria have not gotten help from GreaterFindlay. Ideally, he would like to see both agencies doing what they do best for the whole county.

"We have to work together," Mr. Ingold said. "We can't be a divided house on this."

William Homka, director of regional planning, said his agency, which administers revolving loan funds and block grants, does grant-writing, and works with communities on planning and zoning, is poised to work with GreaterFindlay.

"The county is a big place," he said. "There is a lot of work to do, so together I hope his agency and mine will help advance the economic development interests of our community."

Mr. DeWinkle said he knows the two agencies didn't work cohesively in the past, but he hopes to change that. "I fully believe in doing what you do well and bringing those other parties to the table who can help you be successful," he said.

Mr. DeWinkle knows economic development will be an even greater challenge in the economic climate, but he said he's not dissuaded. To him, there are always business and industries thriving or dying regardless of the world economy.

"Our job is to see that we position this community such that it's thriving no matter what the global economics," he said. "Is it any easier? Of course not, but the point is you do the blocking and tackling. You do the fundamentals correctly. You set yourself up for success regardless of the global economy.

"Does it impact us? Of course it does," Mr. DeWinkle said. "We're not going to cry, woe is me. It is what it is. You deal with it. I can't control it. You focus on the things you can control."

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com,

or 419-353-5972.



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