KO Consulting, LLC had a good 2021. We were able to help many new small businesses get off the ground, assist with business expansion and bring $2 million dollars back to northeast Ohio in the form of grant monies for our clients. 

However, as a team we kept coming back to this need to explore and discuss our area’s strategy for community and economic development. To start that process, KO Consulting team is going to produce some essays, policy papers, blogs, short stories, and anecdotes to help us have more knowledge and hopefully a better dialogue on how to get our region to a place of better economic growth. As follows is my first essay, where I hope, we can start to look at what development occurs here, who approves of this process and how we can be doing better.

Too many Dunkins and Dollar Stores

First let us start with a shared definition of what I mean when I say economic development. There is a plethora of definitions and ways to define economic development but the one I found to be most representative and would like us to refer to is from the California Association for Local Economic Development and is as follows: the creation of wealth from which community benefits are realized. It is more than a jobs program; it is an investment in growing your economy and enhancing the prosperity and quality of life for all residents. I love the last phrase because at the end of the day, job creation, neighborhood revitalization and quality of life must work hand in hand. 

Let me start with the obvious fact that I do not think Dunkin’s and dollar store chains revitalize communities. Shocking right? No, not really, we know these chains pop up in low-income communities, national trends and data suggest just as much. To be clear, it is not having the chains themselves, it is the volume in which they arrive in areas like the Mahoning Valley. It is bad, when economic development professionals think visiting local Dunkin Donuts in multiple cities, equates shopping local , seriously this was quipped at a meeting recently, whether the individual was joking I am not sure but remain alarmed. It concerns me that this is what continuously passes for economic development. I used to believe that elected officials and the policy professional know this is not a path for stabilizing and growing an economy, but I am not sure of that anymore. I am not saying there is not a place for these stores and shops in an overall strategy but what concerns me is that these ribbon cuttings are highlighted as huge economic wins, without actually being such. 

Why is this important?

It is reasonable to ask why is this important? The first is that the contribution  to the local economy is generally  greatly exaggerated, these are low wage paying jobs, not jobs that create financial stability for anyone that works at them. Second, rarely is there a direct impact to the neighborhood these stores are located in. They do not create neighborhood cohesion, and they cannot be tied to lower crime statistics if anything they contribute to the destabilization of neighborhoods. It is critical that as a region we have a clear definition of what “economic development is,” that we talk about projects and processes in a transparent way, and that we have neighborhood metrics that guide decisions with quality of life in mind. There are pros and cons to every project and to determine if said project truly assist economic growth and neighborhood revitalization should always be at the core of these decisions. I do not believe it is, the Mahoning Valley region is in this constant state of panic in trying to “re-create” the steel industry, that when it comes to economic development, we do not have a cohesive and developed strategy. We also think any development is better than no-development and that is just not true. Living wages and neighborhood revitalization have to go hand in hand when our development professionals are shopping project or entertaining developers. Decision makers have to start asking better question, be more strategic and willing to plan projects with more stakeholders involved- and truly seek public input and have honest dialogue when doing so.

Who is in charge?

So, who are the “decision makers” responsible for our economic development? I will not pretend it is not a complicated question in and of itself. A myriad of policy makers, professionals, elected officials and non-profits organizations have a part of this process. But to lift the shroud of secrecy we have to start somewhere — so, let’s walk through the agencies and individuals who have a direct impact on economic development. These are in no particular order and may not be all encompassing, but for our purposes it is a start. The following are specific to our area, and anything in quotations comes directly from the entity’s website.

  1. Elected officials- this means federal, state, and local elected individuals who have some part in the process, from funding to project approval. These includes local county commissioners, elected engineers, mayors, and township trustees.
  2. Government/bureaucratic employees- this includes zoning department employees, sanitary department employees, city managers, chiefs of staff. These are government employees that have been appointed or hired by an elected official.
  3. Non-Profit Organizations, specific to economic development in the Mahoning Valley:
    • The Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber: “The Regional Chamber is your single point of contact for Economic Development Assistance. The Regional Chamber is Northeast Ohio’s source for economic development information and assistance. We provide a broad range of expert, confidential and proven economic development services to prospective and existing area firms. We help companies grow by providing information and assistance that is tailored to fit individual business needs. Since 1993, with our assistance, more than 600 firms collectively have made investments totaling $9.5 billion in the area”.
    • Western Reserve Port Authority: “The Western Reserve Port Authority combines leading-edge financing tools, consulting services and partnership opportunities into a unique suite of development solutions for business, government and non-profit institutions. Whether you are a company or non-profit seeking ways to finance growth, a developer looking for help with the public infrastructure needed to move your project forward, or a governmental entity searching for ways to retain or attract jobs and development, our professional, experienced staff is eager to put our solutions to work for you.”
    • Eastgate Regional Council of Government: “Eastgate provides a regional forum to discuss issues of mutual interest and concern, and to develop recommendations and plans to address those issues. All of this in hopes of leading to a common goal of improving the quality of life for the residents of Northeast Ohio.”
    • Valley Economic Development Partners: “At Valley Economic Development Partners, we combine our economic development expertise with our specialized flexible lending solutions to grow the region’s economy. Our staff is committed to the success of your business, which is why we work tirelessly on your behalf to collaborate with financial institutions to find the best lending solution.”
  4. Professional Services
    • Consulting Firms, Engineering and Architecture Firms, Construction Companies, Surveyors, etc.

These individual officials or organizations are the gatekeepers to project approval, financing, and development. Over the years, I have watched as they have collectively stalled projects, shut some down, or pushed bad ones. I don’t think anyone is particularly nefarious and I do believe they want to see the valley succeed, but often it seems only if the project or vision is theirs, and that mentality collectively has failed our area, it stymies progress and it keeps the valley behind. I also think we have become too accustomed to operating with the same few experts, contractors, etc. If we opened, both metaphorically and physically, the doors to this process and had honest project dialogue, we would be all the better for it. 

ARP Opportunity

I had hoped that the millions of dollars coming to this area via the American Rescue Plan, would allow us a smart pause. Take the $200 million coming to the region and make it $400 million by strategic planning, matching grants, spreading those dollars. Having until December 31, 2024, to allocate funds and then to spend down those funds by December 31, 2026, gives time to pause. For an area that’s been waiting 50 years for revitalization, waiting 12-18 months to develop a plan makes sense. I am not foolish – operating funds, salt trucks, etc. are immediate needs – and portions of the funds could be divided to immediate needs, with the remainder requiring publicly available plans. But starting to allocate $15,000 here and $150,000 there without some type of planning effort, demonstrates the haphazard approach we take to economic development here. Allocating $50,000 for a county or citywide “ARP” fund plan, would pay dividends long term. Instead, as the Vindicator reported (Bad Vibe from ‘Secret Meeting’ on COVID-19 Funds), discussions were held in closed door sessions where only the small chosen few of our economic development “experts” are allowed in a room to determine what they think is best for how to spend those funds. 

It is an “all of the above,” not “either, or”

Which brings me back to my original point. Economic development and revitalization cannot occur in a vacuum, and it cannot rely on those who have led us in the past. We cannot put all our eggs in “Voltage Valley,” we have to have a diverse economic strategy for a multitude of small businesses as well. If we can figure out ways to give millions in grants and tax incentives to Lordstown Motors, we can find a way for a multi- million-dollar investment in mom and pops. Surely, we have enough brains here to figure it out.

But perhaps we need to ask ourselves – if the same individuals and organizations have been doing economic development in the valley for the past 30 years, are they even good at what they do?