A new store in Carlisle Township. Some help with training steelworkers. Three educational institutions extending a hand of collaboration.
The impact of each of these projects may seem limited at first glance, but behind the scenes are foundations and partnerships that are having a big impact on Lorain County’s economy.
The new Rural King, which opened in 2011, is reviving a neighborhood and inspiring hope for similar vacancy-plagued communities. The county’s help with training steelworkers at Republic Steel is helping major employers connect to valuable workforce development services. And the Innovation Alliance between LCCC, University of Akron and Stark State College is creating greater access to higher education for Lorain County’s residents.
All three have attracted regional attention for their positive impacts on Lorain County’s economy. Each earned top honors at Team Northeast Ohio (Team NEO)’s 2012 Economic Development Plus Awards in June.
Here, we take a closer look at how these success stories are earning not just awards, but bottom-line benefits for Lorain County’s economy.
NOT JUST A STORE
Rural King helps revitalize a neighborhood
After three years of sitting vacant, the old Value City building on Oberlin Road in Carlisle Township seemed destined for permanent decline.
The gas station out front had been shuttered, and property owner Ron Matcham knew he could lose the still-open Aldi grocery if he didn’t attract an anchor.
“A lot of people told me I would never bring a shopping center of that age back to life again,” says Matcham. “I’m told I can’t do certain things, but I don’t know that until I try.”
So he began looking for a potential anchor that might be attracted to a location that draws from rural and urban shoppers. With the help of a real-estate firm, he found Rural King, an Illinois-based chain retailer that bills itself as “America’s Farm and Home Store.”
Catching Rural King’s eye was one thing, but reeling it in took a county-wide team effort.
“We worked right from the beginning to make the case for Lorain County instead of another location,” says Don Romancak, director of the Lorain County Department of Community Development. “It was a matter of listening to the company and finding out what they really needed.”
The Lorain County Regional Airport nearby made it easy for Rural King executives to come in for the site visit. Matcham did an excellent job of preparing the building, says Romancak, and of talking up its advantages. The Lorain County Workforce Institute was there to offer help with hosting job fairs and candidate pre-screening so the company could make good hires on its tight timeframe.
“So instead of going through 500 applications, they could go through 70 or 80,”
After a month and a half of negotiations, Matcham signed the deal, and Rural King opened its doors in September 2011, becoming one of four locations in Ohio and 60 across seven states.
But the arrival of Rural King in this part of Elyria has impact far beyond just another place to shop. Matcham is now seeing the renewal of a property that many told him was a goner. Aldi is a happier tenant with increased foot traffic. A new dollar store and restaurant have opened, and Matcham is now working on rehabbing the old gas station. He’s planning for updated signage and is hoping to attract a fast-food chain.
“It has an impact around the county,” he says. “It’s drawing people from Norwalk, from Cuyahoga County, because of what they have to offer. If you give people a reason to go somewhere, they will go.”
The effort to attract Rural King won Team NEO’s award for Business Attraction. Steve Morey, president and CEO of Team Lorain County, sees the new Rural King as a success story that might inspire hope in another community facing vacancies.
“If you are sitting in an area that has vacant properties that were once thriving and you see this, you might say, ‘we can do it too,’ ” Morey says. “My hope would be that Rural King as an anchor will not only keep business there but attract new business to that area.”
With Rural King’s long-term lease in hand, Matcham says its arrival has far exceeded his expectations.
“This store coming has been part of bringing the neighborhood back,” says Matcham. “Seeing that parking lot full of cars again, that’s what makes me smile.”
A HIDDEN GEM
Employee training at Republic Steel shows power of workforce collaboration
In Lorain, the 2011 news that Republic Steel would begin calling back jobs here was cause for celebration. That announcement held the promise of 449 new jobs, retention of another 489 and $1 billion in local economic-development impact related to Republic’s new electric arc furnace, scheduled to open this year.
But at the time, Republic was facing a challenge — its workers needed new OSHA safety training, quickly, in order to be job-ready. Training such a large group would have delayed the process of getting more Lorainites back to work, and more quickly.
“In order to get the steelworkers back, to get the plant back and staffed, we knew the OSHA training was vital,” says Mary Murphy, who at the time was director of the Lorain County Workforce Development Agency (WDA), the company’s primary contact with the county.
Without such training, “potentially they would have had to lay off those individuals who didn’t have the training,” says Mike Longo, the WDA’s current director. The agency teamed up with Republic to access state funding allocated for layoff aversion to fast-track the training process. Republic contributed the required 50 percent of that investment.
That was great news for Republic and for steelworkers. But the quick action WDA showed on this project — which was recognized with Team NEO’s top award in the “Workforce Development” category — points to the broader, and often unsung, impact this agency has for employers and employees in Lorain County.
“We are like a hidden secret,” says Longo. “Not all employers know about the value of what we have to offer. It’s not just training dollars, it’s the services we provide to identify and screen people who are likely to be good candidates.”
For example, after this successful collaboration between the WDA and Republic, the company returned to Longo for help with hiring a team of 18 security guards at the Lorain plant. From its database of job seekers, the WDA did the legwork of identifying potential candidates, screening resumes and presenting a pool of applicants likely to fit the position’s criteria, presenting the company with 30 to 40 names.
“It’s a matter of keeping people employed throughout the county [and] building a relationship with the employer so they value not only the training dollars, but the other services available through the system,” says Longo. “That’s what has happened; [Republic] is coming back to our system to figure out how to access the talent they need.”
Plenty of counties have agencies and networks charged with workforce development. But Romancak calls Lorain County’s network “trend-setting” for the strength of the communication built over the years.
“It’s not uncommon for county governments to collaborate and work with other entities, but at the depth we do,” Romancak says, “it’s definitely unique.”
That kind of collaboration has ensured that agencies and organizations working in job readiness and workforce development aren’t knocking on the same doors of the same employers, or becoming territorial and duplicating efforts that could undermine their common goals.
Longo and his agency also work with local employers in manufacturing, healthcare, engineering and other fields to find job-shadowing opportunities for youth or even temporary paid positions (supported by the county) that might open their eyes to new career paths.
At Republic Steel, “relationships were made with their HR folks and financial folks, and conversations have continued about internships and opportunities for students to take tours,” says Murphy, who’s now with the Lorain County Workforce Institute.
“[This project] continues to build trust and belief in how we do things,” says Romancak. “It demonstrates how we are able to work together and keep things moving forward throughout the county.”
Alliance tackles affordability, accessibility
Sometimes a great idea begins with just a good old-fashioned, one-to-one conversation.
That’s how plenty of good ideas have germinated through the Innovation Alliance, a collaboration between the University of Akron, LCCC and Stark State College, during the last seven years.
Polly Moss, the program director of the Innovation Alliance, points to these conversations as often being the catalyst for change and growth.
“That’s often how [ideas] get started,” she says. “I’m just talking to someone [and] everyone says, ‘That’s a good idea, let’s do it,’ ” Moss says. “People are amazing in how creative they are, [and] their willingness to try new things, to try to help the students.”
Collaboration among colleges and universities isn’t just a trend, it’s becoming a necessity in the drive to make higher education more affordable and accessible. In our region, the Innovation Alliance has built such a strong three-school partnership that it earned top honors in Team NEO’s “Regionalism & Cross-Border Collaboration” category.
Moss serves as the link that helps the institutions communicate about shared goals and find ways to make education available to more students, more affordably.
“The people who benefit from that is a broader audience. You have more resources, more institutions involved, so you can have a broader impact,” says Moss.
Recently, one large public school district set aggressive goals for college preparedness, such as having all students take at least one college course while still in high school. In order to meet that goal, all three institutions in the Innovation Alliance came to the table with potential solutions.
Moss says these schools have always had positive relationships. But the Innovation Alliance has widened the lines of communication, uniting them around common goals.
“I get the right people at the table,” says Moss. “It’s [remarkable] what can we do collectively that we might do differently working individually.”