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Published: Wednesday, 8/1/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Development official ends 30-year career

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Tom Blaha. Tom Blaha.
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BOWLING GREEN -- Tom Blaha admits that nearly three decades ago when he was first hired to do economic development in northwest Ohio, he was a neophyte in the position.

He had no economic development experience, there was no blueprint or manual to tell someone how to sell companies on an area, and worse -- he had no job to fall back upon, having just returned to Ohio after losing his teaching job in Scotland.

His new employers, the Wood, Sandusky, Ottawa, and Seneca Community Action Commission in Fremont, gave him a meager $30,000 budget that included his tiny $20,000 salary.

"I thought I might be the only guy I know who went from teaching to something that paid even less money," Mr. Blaha recalled.

But he learned the job quickly. And after eight years guiding the WSOS, he became such a good salesman that officials in Wood County approached him about creating an economic development department.

Mr. Blaha has spent the last 19 years in Bowling Green as the first and only executive director of the Wood County Economic Development Commission, and over his tenure he has helped bring in more than $3 billion in business investments and nearly 8,000 jobs to Wood County.

However, all good things come to an end, and on Tuesday Mr. Blaha, 65, retired from his longtime position as Wood County's master salesman. A search is under way for his replacement.

"I turned 65 this year and I had my first grandchild. There's a lot of things on my bucket list, so it was time," Mr. Blaha said of his decision. "I feel lucky that I still have a lot of energy, and my wife and I will be able to do things together. "

First up, he is headed to the Olympics in London. Afterward, he plans to research and write sports articles, a hobby he developed through his affiliation with the Society for American Baseball Research.

Looking back on his career, Mr. Blaha said that, at first, his only credentials for being viewed as a potential economic development person was a master's degree in economic geography.

It didn't help much.

"I ended up being self-taught. I kind of learned on the fly and it was quite an experience," Mr. Blaha said. "I basically spent my first year as a luncheon speaker explaining to anyone who would listen that WSOS wasn't a radio station."

But Mr. Blaha's instincts were good.

For successful economic development, one first must build a network of contacts. He did that, then used his contacts to hook up a couple of area companies with state grants, which in turn opened more doors.

When Wood county commissioners came calling in 1993, Mr. Blaha saw an opportunity to create a public-private partnership. "I knew I had to find some ways to crank out some county money but I also got private funds," he said. "So it's worked from there and it's just gained momentum all along."

Dean Monske, chief executive officer of the Regional Growth Partnership, said Mr. Blaha created a model for how to do economic development, one that has been widely copied and helped economic development efforts throughout the region.

"Back when I started in economic development 13 years ago with the city of Oregon, I considered Tom to be one of my first mentors," Mr. Monske said.

"At that time, Wood County and Tom specifically were looked on as an organization that you wanted to emulate and be like. They had their act together, and he was one of the best practitioners in the region," Mr. Monske added.

What made Mr. Blaha a standout at his job was his believability and passion for whatever he was selling, Mr. Monske said.

"I was with him as part of a six-member team in Hanover [Germany] and I got to watch him in action as a salesperson. He's a guy who not only understand the details of the product he's selling, he exuded this passion for the [northwest Ohio] region," Mr. Monske recalled. "He always made great presentations and had a very good presence in front of companies or potential clients."

Rob Armstrong, an official with Toledo's Bennett Enterprises, which operates hotels and restaurants in Wood County, said Mr. Blaha is well respected in his field.

"Tom's biggest strength is he's an extremely bright person and he reads people well. He seems to know what individual people are after and he can get to the point and meet their needs," Mr. Armstrong said.

"He's done a whole lot of introducing people to other people and he's always thinking of solutions for people. He's is a great matchmaker," Mr. Armstrong added.

Mr. Blaha acknowledges that he lost his share of economic development battles but said he has no regrets.

"One of my favorite things to say is that economic development is a journey, not a destination. There's various projects that we were working on that we haven't landed, but we've learned from them and they helped us land the next project," he said.

Mr. Blaha said he was most proud of the role he played in persuading CSX Transportation to put an $80 million freight-transfer terminal hub in Henry Township, just west of North Baltimore.

Its full benefit to the region won't be fully realized for several years, but when it fully develops, Mr. Blaha said, it not only will help bring the world to northwest Ohio, it will allow the region's companies to greatly expand their global sales.

Overall, the newly retired economic development director said his biggest achievement probably was having built a consensus and a coalition between private business and government in the region. Such a consensus really didn't exist 20 years ago, he said.

"Part of that was overcoming the idea that [economic development] was not a political process," Mr. Blaha said. "Business can go wherever it needs to succeed and proceed and it's all good as long as it's in the region.

"So being able to build a consensus and win folks over and build a model of cooperation, that was very important. … If there's one thing that I do regret about leaving it is that this blossom that we've been watering and cultivating is about to spread," Mr. Blaha said.

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.



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