Going our own way? Hold off for a minute

Recently it has been announced that four counties that comprise the Lake-to-River corridor in northeast Ohio want to break off from the region administered by Team NEO and create its own economic development region.

Trust me, I understand why they want to, but I wonder if it is the right thing to do.

Years ago when I worked at the Youngstown / Warren Regional Chamber, the top two executives of the Allegheny Conference, which is an organization committed to improving the Pittsburgh region’s economic future and quality of life, according to its website, paid us a visit in downtown Youngstown. At that time, Pittsburgh was an example of how a Rustbelt city could make a comeback, and it was well deserved in my opinion. We thanked them profusely for going out of their way to see their smaller Ohio neighbor. They were sincere when they said it was their pleasure, and stated getting to Youngstown was quicker than some parts of the Conference’s own territory, thanks to our interstate highway connectivity. While there was no formal relationship, we felt Pittsburgh had our back, and years later it paid off handsomely.

Several months later, the head of marketing at that time from Team NEO paid us a visit in our downtown Youngstown office. She was 45 minutes late because she got lost on her way to downtown Youngstown. I wondered then how effective Team NEO could be in marketing our Valley if they couldn’t even find it.

Of course, it’s easy to see why she got lost. If you go on Team NEO’s website now, on the online map of northeast Ohio, Youngstown is shown to be located in Trumbull County! Also, one of the largest employers they note for Trumbull County is Mahoning County!

There is no mention of FoxConn, Vallourec, or Ultium batteries and these are just minor examples. However, it does give a good proxy for the feeling that within Team NEO, Cleveland comes first, and the “outer regions” are distant in priority.

That all being said, I feel that while the new Lake-to-River region may have its autonomy, it still may have a diminished voice at a time when the Valley deservedly has more swagger at the northeast Ohio table. As one of many proud Slovak-Americans from northeast Ohio, I always was bewildered when Czechoslovakia split into two friendly nations in 1993. Then, when they both decided to join the European Union years later, they had less pull as they were smaller countries.

While you may look at the EU example as far-fetched, regional partnerships work when the right team is running them. Remember when I said the Pittsburgh relationship paid off years later? This is based on when the Cleveland-Pittsburgh TechBelt Initiative was the application lead for President Obama’s first public-private manufacturing research center, which won what is now America Makes. And because of that victory, that entire mega-region has the reputation and the investment dollars for being a global hub of 3D printing activity.

Years ago, I think the Team NEO model struggled because Cleveland itself didn’t have its core economic development plan in place, and as a result, I suspect it created internal conflict. Well, now Cleveland is being recognized in the same light as Pittsburgh, and the Akron / Canton and Youngstown / Warren areas also are scoring major development wins.

So instead of pulling the trigger immediately on a Lake-to-River region, maybe pushing for a wholesale change in the management structure of Team NEO could be an option. Maybe the group of three aforementioned sub-regions have a distinct and equal voice at the table, and much like the EU leadership is rotated yearly.

If it is ultimately decided that a Lake-to-River autonomous region is the best way to proceed, the reestablishment of a Cleveland-Pittsburgh TechBelt keeps all parties talking and working together for one or two major initiatives per year. As Cleveland and Akron / Canton have a truer symbiotic relationship, maybe the Mahoning Valley should find a way to be the junior partner to Pittsburgh — perhaps looking to merge the port authorities? New York – New Jersey did, and the results tower over other ports in the U.S.

There were, and I suspect there still are, many good people at Team NEO, but the cries from the outer counties were not taken seriously enough. Thankfully Gov. DeWine heard them. Yet while I love to see the success of my native Youngstown and the Valley on its own, let us make sure that separating is truly the right thing to do.

Planey is a Mahoning Valley native who now is CEO of SolaBlock, a Massachusetts and New York solar technology start-up.


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