What’s next for Greater Lima Region Inc.?

LIMA — The questions about Greater Lima Region Inc. shifted dramatically over the past five years.

They’re not asking, “What is GLR?” anymore. Now they’re asking, “What’s next for GLR?”

“What I can say is this,” said Doug Olsson, the president and CEO of the organization who will retire July 5. “GLR is in a very different place now than where it was five years ago.”

Olsson stepped into the role at the fledgling organization in 2019 after its first president, Jeff Sprague, left after seven months to work for Regional Growth Partnership. The organization was still new at the time, replacing the former Allen County Visionaries as the primary fundraiser for Allen Economic Development Group.

“We were the primary funder for AEDG; that was the purpose of the Visionaries,” said Phil Buell, president of Superior Credit Union and president of GLR’s board. “And it was always kind of a struggle to make sure we were going to get there with funding.”

Now, the organization is in “great shape” financially, It’s seen its membership nearly double to 85 member companies, all interested in improving the region. It invested $250,000 for the naming rights of the Greater Lima Region Park and Amphitheater, helping market the organization while helping that project reach its goals.

GLR’s focus expanded too, so AEDG can focus on its core mission of attracting new business, growing businesses already here and site development, said Dave Stratton, president and CEO of AEDG.

“There are certain aspects that they focus on in respect to economic development, such as marketing more on a regional approach, looking at housing and what is necessary in respect to weighing workforce and for our businesses,” Stratton said.

The housing piece

It didn’t take GLR and Olsson, a former newspaper man who was publisher of The Lima News before joining GLR, long before they realized the importance of improving the housing stock.

“We identified one of our biggest weaknesses right now that we’re focusing on is housing,” said Mike Swick, president and CEO of Lima Memorial Health System and secretary/treasurer of GLR. “We can get people to the community, but they have to have appropriate housing. I think the younger generation is looking for opportunities to come back or be a part of it, but when they come back, they’re looking for better housing.”

For GLR, it started with a partnership with Blass Construction and Remodeling and renovating apartments at 315 N. Elizabeth St., Lima. Then it became involved in Project 129 LLC, an ongoing revitalization of Census Tract 129, just north of Mercy Health-St. Rita’s Medical Center to improve its housing.

It required a change of mentality for Olsson after decades in the fast-paced world of newspapers.

“The time-frame really did change, and I have to give credit to the GLR board for their patience and understanding that some of these projects had an implementation timeline of a year or more,” Olsson said. “Personally, that was a big change for me because I was used to moving 100 mph and dealing with very much day-to-day issues that required attention.”

Regional approach

The privately funded GLR figured out how to work on economic development with a regional approach, not caring about the municipal borders in the way that AEDG must. AEDG is a public-private entity, funded 52% by GLR and 48% by Allen County, the City of Lima and townships in the county.

“We’re strictly focused on Allen County,” Stratton said. “But let’s face it, people don’t see borders. They want this region to grow. So the work that the GLR is doing in that respect is significant.”

GLR invested in various economic development organizations outside of Allen County. It hasn’t completed a major project yet, but it’s bridged some gaps, Olsson said. He spoke of attending meetings outside the county, listening to needs and showing that “the rising tide lifts all boats” in the region, Olsson said.

“It took a little time for those entities outside of Allen County to understand that GLR was there to help. In many cases, we had to overcome the fear of what this organization was trying to do in, for instance, Putnam County or Auglaize County. The education curve in those adjacent counties took a little bit longer, and that’s still very much in a developmental phase.”

MakerFest, an annual gathering of high school students to meet with the region’s job-creators organized by GLR, brings in students from well beyond Allen County’s borders, Buell said.

Swick credited the laid-back demeanor of Olsson, who seldom wears a tie and prefers golf shirts, with helping GLR grow.

“With Doug, we were able to start to reach out to companies that didn’t know who we are, what we were or what economic development was,” Swick said. “He’s done a great job of spending a lot of time out there, educating people and increasing our membership because we can’t do it without continued growth in membership.”

What’s next

Greater Lima Region expects to name its new CEO and president “in the next month,” Buell said, and he expects a smooth handoff between Olsson and his successor. The goal is to keep the momentum rolling forward.

“We have AEDG doing a wonderful job. The amount of businesses that locally are expanding, and the amount of outside interest we’re getting in Lima, is as high as I’ve ever seen being in Lima for 20 years,” Buell said. “It’s wonderful all that activity is out there right now. We want to keep AEDG focused on that. I think moving forward now, we’re actually taking a look at GLR not just being potentially a funding mechanism but also being more of a support mechanism for AEDG too.”

The organization has continued financial support from area businesses, with major investors such as Lima Memorial Health System, Mercy Health-St. Rita’s Medical Center, Nutrien, Perry proTECH, Procter & Gamble and Superior Credit Union vowing to continue after an initial five-year commitment.

The relationship has been beneficial for AEDG, Stratton said.

“Over many years, we’ve been doing more pieces like community development, things like vibrancy of downtown, looking at the amenities, what about road construction and so forth,” Stratton said. “Having the GLR focus on some of those points of development has been helpful in a tremendous way. Our hope is we can expand on that even more.”

As for Olsson, he’s looking forward to retirement. He plans to relocate to Florida, where one of his two daughters and a new grandchild live. He looks forward to bicycling, hiking and playing pickleball. He’ll also play some golf and learn how to relax, along with visiting Colorado to see another daughter and another new grandchild. “Change is good,” Olsson said.

He praised the city that welcomed him and his wife, Leslie, when he came in 2016. Lima was the 10th city where he relocated for work, and he found it to be a good fit.

“The qualify of life in Lima is terrific,” Olsson said. “It was a great place for my wife and I to build a life. I think the pace of life here is very welcoming, and the people are incredibly friendly. … I came here in 2016 as a stranger, never having set foot in Lima before, and found a very welcoming community in my first week on the job here.”

Reach David Trinko at 567-242-0467 or on Twitter @Lima_Trinko.