Ask Lorain County Chamber of Commerce President Frank DeTillio how the Lorain County Growth Partnership was formed and he’ll tell you a story about a seemingly unrelated event: the construction of a new county justice center in downtown Elyria. He explains that after the structure was completed, the vacated courtroom complex on the fifth floor of the county administration building across the street was gradually occupied by organizations that have similar objectives. The first to move in were the county and community economic-development groups, which consolidated multiple offices into a single space. Then Team Lorain County, a nonprofit organization devoted to attracting new businesses to the county, arrived.

“I was [on the fifth floor] one day talking to the Lorain County administrator, Jim Cordes, and he was showing me what was going on,” DeTillio recalls. “I said, ‘Where’s my space?’ And he said, ‘Anywhere you want it, Frank.’ So the chamber moved up to the fifth floor, too. We convinced Lorain County Community College to put a business learning lab and training-center room up here. Then we moved the chamber’s Small Business Development Center offices up here.”

The fifth floor had transitioned to a space full of people with similar business goals. That allowed them to start having conversations about where Lorain County needed to go and how they were going to get there. In 2006 those conversations led to the formation of the growth partnership, a consortium that fosters cooperation among member organizations to promote public and private economic development by sharing resources and providing other assistance whenever necessary.

Simply put, Cordes defines economic development as “anything that makes Lorain County a more competitive place to produce or retain jobs and improve the community’s way of life.” That includes everything from refurbishing an old building to hold a thriving local business to training existing workers to attracting new businesses — sometimes with a project that eliminates urban blight.

“Most times, the public thinks of economic development as creation of jobs,” Cordes says. “But that’s too tight of a definition. It touches so much more.”

In answer to that, the partnership provides a one-stop-shopping sort of access to a broad range of economic-development services offered by government, education, and business and community organizations. According to Cordes, this has eliminated the frustration many business owners and executives encountered when they tried to get information or assistance.

“There were times when they just gave up trying to figure out where to go,” he says. “Now, no matter who they contact in the partnership, we walk them to where they need to be. We know each other. We’re familiar with each other. We work together. We have a no-wrong-door approach.”

The approximately 50 growth-partnership members include cities and townships, county and state agencies, service organizations, health-care institutions, even utilities. But the primary founding partners — the ones that meet once a month — are the Lorain County Board of Commissioners, Lorain County Chamber of Commerce, Team Lorain County, Lorain County Community College and Lorain County Joint Vocational School (JVS). These five organizations provide many of the key services and resources needed to attract, support and retain businesses.

Business Attraction
Team Lorain County is the organization primarily responsible for luring business — both new companies and expansion of existing ones — to the county by touting its assets: a diverse workforce, existing buildings ready for immediate occupancy, land for build-to-suit facilities and easy access to highways, railroads and airports, all near a major metropolitan area located in the middle of North America.

“According to C.B. Richard Ellis, a major real-estate brokerage and site-selection consultant, Ohio is rated as one of the most aggressive states as far as business incentives go,” says Team Lorain County president and chief executive officer Steve Morey. “That’s a change that has just come about in the last couple of years.”

To promote the county’s many advantages, Morey and his employees use social-networking sites such as Facebook, various industry trade shows, e-mailings and in-person sales calls. Their newest tool is the REAL (an acronym for Retention, Expansion, Attraction and Leadership) Team, a group of growth-partnership members custom-assembled to help Morey “close a business-attraction deal” by gathering information and compiling it in reports, proposals, etc.

Enticing business to locate in Lorain County is a group effort, says Morey. It takes people from the public and private sectors, workforce development and the real-estate brokerage community. “When a company [calls or] comes to visit, executives immediately have somebody from the public or private sector, nonprofit world, education — you name it — who can answer any of the questions they might have about the community.”

Team Lorain County offers twice-yearly familiarization trips offered in conjunction with regional and state groups — one of the most effective weapons in the organization’s image-building arsenal. Site-selection consultants and business decision-makers often revise their opinions of Lorain County after touring the area and talking to executives of resident companies, says Morey.

“One of our biggest challenges is changing the perception of what Cleveland is, of what Lorain County is,” Morey says. “Once we get them here, they say, ‘Oh, my gosh! This is a vibrant community with a lot of educated people and a lot of thriving businesses. This isn’t the Rust Belt that people have been telling us about.’ ”

Education & Training
Marcia Ballinger, vice president of strategic and institutional development for Lorain County Community College, and Chris Fletcher, director of the Lorain County JVS Adult Career Center, say their respective institutions’ roles in providing education and training to local workers has expanded since the growth partnership came into existence.

“Some programs developed in collaboration with our partners have become hallmarks of the growth partnership,” Ballinger says.

The first program she mentions is Make Your Layoff Pay Off, a college, JVS and county workforce development agency innovation that uses stimulus dollars from the American Recovery Reinvestment Act to provide laid-off workers with free, short-term certificate training in emerging high-demand industries, such as green energy. Make Your Layoff Pay Off has garnered national recognition — President Barack Obama visited a lab where students were working on a short tower for wind turbines before a January 2010 town-hall meeting on the college campus.

Fletcher points out the importance of another attention-getter, Project TEN (Train Employees Now), which converts federal workforce-development funds distributed by the state — usually acquired by large companies with the manpower and time to navigate a months-long application process — into funds small- and medium-sized businesses can quickly access. These groups can use the funds to give skills-upgrade training — provided by the college, JVS and Employment Network — to existing full-time employees. That training is customized to an employer’s needs based on an on-site assessment by a three- or four-person team of representatives from the growth partnership. The program is a pre-emptive strike against business failure and unemployment in such diverse industries as manufacturing and nursing care, says Fletcher.

“We do training so workforces can stay productive and efficient, not suffer some of the cutbacks in the economic circumstances that we’ve seen over the last couple of years,” he says.

Future programs will undoubtedly be shaped by the work of Business Connections, an outreach effort conceived by the growth-partnership leadership team that conducts in-person surveys at companies of all sizes and types about a wide range of issues, including how county services are viewed. The results of those interviews — about 100 were conducted last year, and 120 are scheduled to be completed by the end of June — are used to identify individual and collective challenges in the business community. Business Connections identified 200 “opportunities” from last year’s surveys, including the need for more employee training, properties that meet specific requirements, new equipment, assistance in business-plan development and implementation, financing and business-to-business referrals. Some of those needs were significant and are now being addressed.

“Rather than looking at [those needs] when companies are laying off employees, we’re trying to look at proactive growth strategies — how we can provide the training resources and funding that can help keep their workforces more competitive,” Ballinger says.
Business Support
DeTillio is reluctant for the Lorain County Chamber of Commerce to take sole credit for some of its business-support initiatives. “The longer we work with the growth partnership, the less we’re going to be able to talk about the things that we do [individually],” he insists. When pressed, however, he notes that the chamber continues to offer unique networking opportunities — an after-work get-together known as Business After Hours and an annual reception for local elected officials, for example — as well as workshops on issues facing the business community and collective purchasing opportunities for necessities such as healthcare. The chamber’s Safety Council works with the state Bureau of Workers Compensation to provide monthly meetings members can attend to earn refund credits on workers compensation costs.
The chamber does get more involved in business relations and governmental affairs, as necessary. DeTillio recalls when the sole access road into the Elyria BASF Catalyst Manufacturing Plant went under a railroad overpass and interrupted truck traffic in and out of the facility, a situation so bad the company seriously considered moving operations to another location. The chamber spearheaded a successful effort to convince the city and state to come up with the money needed to install a new road. The improvement paid off. The company not only stayed in town — it recently announced a plant expansion that will add 100 to 150 jobs.

Retention and Expansion

Just as Lorain County contributes the space to house the Lorain County Growth Partnership, it helps provide much of the basic infrastructure needed not only to attract but also to keep businesses in the area.

Cordes recalls creating a joint effort to build a road at Black River Landing in Lorain so the city’s port authority could develop the site; working with the city of Lorain to widen Colorado Avenue and, in turn, improve access for businesses; and collaborating with the city of Elyria to install a sewer system at the back of an industrial park so development could continue there.

The county is also a major, but quiet, source of funding for various projects. “Workforce-development and training dollars flow through the county to our workforce-development agency,” Cordes explains. “We also fund the Small Business Development Center.” In addition to awarding tax abatements and grants and doling out stimulus funds, the county finances large, long-term projects through its Lorain County Port Authority and arranges revolving loans from its solid-waste department.

The county offices can also issue economic-development bonds so a company can gain funding and tax exemption on that funding — lowering their borrowing cost so they still have money to expand and/or upgrade equipment, he adds.
But Cordes stresses that the county isn’t the only growth-partnership member putting money and other resources into economic development. Like DeTillio, he’s careful not to take too much credit for any accomplishment.

“The key words are always going to be collaboration, consensus-building and cooperation — those are the three Cs that underpin the growth partnership,” he says.