LIMA — Lowering water and sewer tap-in fees. Refocusing a county agency to consider employer needs. Adopting a “benefit cliff” program. Utilizing the Allen County Land Bank. Creating a regional communication strategy. Pushing legislative policies to spur housing investment. Acting as the liaison between private and public entities to create a major retail/restaurant development on Harding Highway. Fact-finding for the county/city tussle concerning Lima’s Building Department.
The Greater Lima Region, through its President/CEO Jeff Sprague, has played a part in the all the above initiatives this past year.
But if the Greater Lima Region name sounds unfamiliar, that’s because the organization — a private economic development nonprofit — has only been around for 2018. And throughout this past year, it’s worked quickly.
As Sprague explained the need for the GLR: “You’re either growing or you’re dying. There is no in-between.”
Transforming the Visionaries
Prior to 2018, GLR had a different name. Known as the Allen County Visionaries, the group was a conglomeration of private businesses who funded 50 percent of the Allen Economic Development Group’s activities. GLR still fulfills that role, but as GLR Board President Mike Swick explained, the group has been reformed to now be more of an overarching structure with two organizations underneath — AEDG and the Lima/Allen Chamber of Commerce.
“There was never really a cross pollination approach to it in the past. I think that’s where we kind of looked at it and said it makes sense for us to try to bring it all together,” Swick said. “In doing that I think we can be more successful.”
“From my perspective, it’s going to enhance the abilities for us to accomplish really great things for the Lima region,” AEDG President/CEO Dave Stratton said. “Being the overarching structure will unify the focus and accomplishments of all three organizations.”
As Swick explained, AEDG’s responsibilities will remain as the county’s primary economic development organization – focusing on attracting businesses and helping existing businesses to expand — while GLR focuses on some of the aspects that will in the long run affect economic development efforts.
Stratton named housing as one such initiative. Due to a dearth of middle-income housing in the region, new employees attracted to the area are having a hard time finding adequate housing, which is hampering economic growth initiatives, Stratton said.
“It associates well with what we’re trying to accomplish with AEDG and the business community,” Stratton said.
Regionalization and Workforce
Another major aspect of GLR’s stated goal is apparent by looking at what it calls itself — the Greater Lima Region. While AEDG’s primary focus is Allen County, the Greater Lima Region looks at exactly that — the greater Lima region, an eight-county grouping that includes Allen, Van Wert, Auglaize, Hardin, Mercer, Putnam, Paulding and Hancock counties centered around Lima.
Regionalization is nothing new in economic development circles, Wapakoneta Area Economic Development Council Executive Director Greg Myers said. Prior to JobsOhio taking over the reins of economic development for the state, the Ohio Department of Development had a regional structure with Lima as its center. That changed with JobsOhio’s implementation.
Through Greater Lima Region’s organization, each county and city involved get a benefit because the larger region can better sell itself through a single message, Myers said.
“It focuses on our key industries and sectors we are trying to attract to the region, and we all need to be on the same page on what those industries are. The more we work collaboratively the better for the region,” Putnam County Community Improvement Corporation Director Amy Sealts said.
Another aspect of regionalization lies at the heart of one of Greater Lima Region’s primary goals — to expand the region’s workforce.
In the past, the lack of “jobs” — the oft-repeated political tagline — has been one the primary problem areas for the region. But the script flipped these past few years when jobs became abundant, and the region’s shrinking population came into better focus as a major future issue.
In a U.S. Department of Defense-funded study — the document that lays out Greater Lima Region’s foundational plan – it is estimated the 380,000 population region will have a workforce gap of 10,000 to 30,000 people by 2025 if action isn’t taken to reverse trends.
“(Workforce) is an issue everywhere. That kind of forced our hand to think of things regionally instead of just in silos,” Sealts said.
“County lines mean nothing,” Sprague said in reference to the workforce shortage. “Workers are going to come across those lines, and too many times, we just focus in on a certain geographic area and say: ‘Okay, we’re just responsible for this.’ In essence, you have to draw that 50-mile radius because that’s where the workforce is coming in and out of.”
An example of GLR’s workforce development effort is MakerFest — the largest event in the region organized to attract and retain young people. Originally under the purview of AEDG, it now sits under GLR.
In the last three years, the event has grown from 17 schools involved to 30 with major expansions in the number of businesses taking part. Of note this year, Sprague said, was the inclusion of a Columbus-based high school with students interested in the opportunities of northwest Ohio.
“(Other regions) are pulling resources from us everyday. If you look at each one of these communities, they have a growth plan. Fort Wayne has a very competitive growth plan to grow Fort Wayne. We’re within their circle. It’s the same with Columbus and Toledo,” Sprague said. “They’re wanting to grow, and they’ll grow at our expense. So put the stop in that. We want to grow.”
While Greater Lima Region has plenty of advocates, there have been some questions about how the organization operates and who it’s supposed to represent. Worthy of note is who comprises its board — an 11-member group with Swick at its head. Of the 11, only one, Dan DiBiasio, president of Ohio Northern University, represents an organization outside of Allen County. Other organizations represented include Lima Memorial Health System, Mercy Health-St. Rita’s Medical Center, Superior Credit Union, Perry ProTECH, University of Northwestern Ohio, Procter & Gamble, The Lima News and Nutrien.
The Lima News is represented by Publisher Doug Olsson.
Swick said increased transparency into GLR’s initiatives is a goal of the organization for 2019, and part of the difficulty attracting representation outside Allen County has been showing the benefits of a seat at the board.
Myers, of Wapakoneta, said he’s a proponent of regionalization, but WAEDC is still working to determine the “value proposition” of being more involved in GLR. The Wapakoneta-based group already has “skin in the game” with Dayton’s regional development group, and the city often frames itself as the northern gateway to the Dayton region.
There’s also the private nature of GLR, which is of some concern to Mayor David Berger.
“What has occurred and what I was informed by the folks with GLR, the upset of the year was, their view, the public private partnership (of AEDG) has not worked. And it was time for the private sector, the big businesses, to take over,” Berger said in an interview earlier this month when Stratton was named to replace Sprague as head of AEDG.
“I don’t support that view,” Berger said.
Public funds — roughly $240,000 — do fund 50 percent of AEDG, which has since been set underneath GLR.
Allen County pays $190,000 of that total. The City of Lima pays roughly $30,000, and the rest is funded by miscellaneous townships and villages in the county.
“My sense is our community made a similar set of mistakes in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” Berger said. “Now there is in effect an attempt to go back to the private sector-only model, and I think that’s a mistake.”
Berger referenced the Door-To-Tomorrow fundraising campaign, which set up the Lima-Allen County Development Council in the early ’90s. According to newspaper archives, the council had been privately funded at a tune of over $2 million over a four-year period before it was effectively dissolved with the resignation of then-Chamber president William Bassitt, who left to take a job in Missouri in 1992.
Being a private company also allows flexibility in how Sprague operates by dealing with municipalities outside of just Lima and Allen County, Swick said, through expanded collaboration across public silos.
“Jeff’s role is to cross those lines, and when we say that, it’s not a bad thing what the public sector has done. It’s just not as efficient as we like to see it from a private sector. So it’s that balancing act,” Swick said. “This has worked. It’s not been bad. But how do we get to that next level?
“The perception we have sometimes is, it’s big business running this, and it’s not. We include small businesses. We all grow together, and that’s kind of how we have to stay focused on things we have going forward. It’s hard to put a finger on what we’re doing on certain things, because we’re doing it behind the scenes. And politically, we want to make sure that everyone gets credit.”
In the new year, Swick said the GLR will be focusing on housing, increasing transparency and moving forward with a communication strategy.
As for housing, the organization is currently putting together a housing study to better answer the questions of what the region has available and what it may need in the future.
Communication will be another initiative. The “Real American” tagline will still be used for materials used by Lima and Allen County-based entities and events, but GLR and its communication strategy will be looking at how to use the term “Greater Lima Region” as the central tenet of a marketing strategy for the region.
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.