"Why can't every town just take care of itself?" the listener from Chagrin Falls asked.
Akron Mayor Donald Plusquellic gets questions like that a lot, more than he would like. During a radio interview in late March, Plusquellic, who is in the middle of his astounding fifth term as Akron's mayor, was discussing building a regional economy and what he's done in greater Akron to partner with surrounding townships.
But after the hour-long interview, the Chagrin Falls listener still didn't get it.
"We're all in this together," Plusquellic says he explained to the listener. "This is the one thing that still remains to be done in Northeast Ohio, to have this feeling that we're all in this together rather than some person saying, 'We're separate, we're not part of Cleveland or Akron. We're different than them. Let them go it alone.' I think we should get together to figure out ways to solve problems and we should continue to do that on a regional basis."
Plusquellic is the most outspoken supporter of economic collaboration in Northeast Ohio. He envisions a region where every city isn't fighting each other for new businesses, taxes and government funding. A competitive region, but one that realizes that what's good for the city is good for the suburbs, and vice versa.
But instead of just talking about it, Plusquellic has created Joint Economic Development Districts (JEDDs) in townships around his city. By extending water and sewer lines from the city, Akron helps these townships grow while at the same time reaping the benefits of attracting residents and building businesses. The first of their kind in the country, these JEDDs serve as an example to Cleveland, Youngstown, Lorain and other industrial cities looking for a way out of the red.
"There is no question that Mayor Plusquellic understands that the economy is regional, not local," says University of Akron President Luis Proenza. "Throughout his tenure, he has been a force for innovative development ideas."
Plusquellic looks to his neighbor to the southwest with almost political envy.
In his 14-year tenure starting in 1954, Columbus Mayor M.E. "Jack" Sensenbrenner grew his city by nearly 100 square miles through annexation of surrounding areas. As new communities developed, Sensenbrenner was happy to extend his city's water and sewer lines, but only if the town agreed to annexation. Since 1950, the city has grown 39.9 square miles to 212.6 square miles, spread over three counties. Columbus reportedly still averages more than 60 annexations a year.
The city of Cleveland, on the other hand, provides water and sewer to more than 50 communities in Northeast Ohio with no taxes flowing back to the city's general fund. Plusquellic's city suffered the same fate.
"City leaders recognized over the years that these water and sewer lines were going to places where jobs from Akron were leaving and moving out to the suburbs," says Plusquellic, a lifelong Akron resident. "When I came in as mayor, I had lived through 13 years of losing jobs."
In response, city leaders raised the water rates, thinking that would keep people and companies from moving out. The move ended up fueling the conflict, Plusquellic says. In the 1970s, Akron started an annexation policy where it required any community with water and sewer to annex.
"We got aggressive about it," he says. "We started to fine people who had already received water and sewer and tried to entice them to sign annexation petitions. All this did was pit the townships against the city in battle."
Looking to the private sector for inspiration, in 1994, Plusquellic launched the idea for Joint Economic Development Districts. What it came down to, was one party had something to benefit the other: Townships had vacant land and the city of Akron had water and sewer. Once he earned approval from the state House of Representatives and Senate, Plusquellic negotiated contracts to create JEDDs in four townships - Springfield, Copley, Coventry and Bath - where income tax would be paid at the same rate as the city of Akron, but the property taxes would stay within the township.
The only loser in these agreements was the Akron Public Schools. The school district, funded by property taxes, didn't reap the benefits of the growing townships. Plusquellic decided to pay the schools a percentage of the revenue collected from the JEDDs: 12 percent from Springfield, Coventry and Copley and 6 percent from Bath.
In March, Plusquellic awarded $2.1 million to Akron Public Schools from revenues collected in the JEDDs. The bulk of the payment - $1.7 million - came from six years of taxes in the Bath district, which was withheld due to a unique agreement worked out with the city. Future annual payments to the schools will be closer to $500,000, but is there a public school district in Ohio that couldn't use an addition half-million dollars a year?
Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell apparently liked what she saw going on in Akron. Just 10 days before Plusquellic's $2 million check was presented to the schools, Campbell announced the formation of a JEDD with Richfield Village and Township. The township will contribute land and provide public services, and the village will extend sewers and collect the income tax revenues. Cleveland will extend water service to the new district. The parties in the Cleveland-Richfield agreement will share equally in the income-tax revenues generated in the JEDD.
"While it will not generate a huge amount of annual money for the city of Cleveland, it is our first agreement of this kind," says Julius Ciaccia, director of Cleveland's Department of Public Utilities.
With tax abatements losing favor in cash-starved cities, JEDDs may be one of the few economic development tools where municipalities don't have to sacrifice their budgets for growth.
"(JEDDs) are greatly under-utilized from what they could be," says Donald Iannone, president of Richmond Heights-based Donald T. Iannone & Associates, a national consulting firm for economic development organizations and higher education institutions. "The Akron area has used that initiative more than others and I think that's a smart strategy. It's a tool I've encouraged my clients to use; it's a win-win kind of a strategy."
lusquellic's economic development efforts have raised some eyebrows over the years. In 1999, he helped Quality Mold Inc., a growing tire mold manufacturer, move out of the city and into its Springfield Township JEDD.
"(Quality Mold) couldn't find property in Akron just because the size of their needs and vacant land and the difficulties in finding a place," Plusquellic says. "The thought was that it's better than them moving to North Carolina or Virginia, so we helped keep them in the region, keeping those jobs. Quite frankly, I would have rather kept them in Akron, but this was a better alternative than seeing them move to some other state."
Quality Mold consolidated most of its facilities in Ohio to Springfield, basing 160 employees in the new facility. Akron spent $3.6 million on the development of the industrial park where Quality Mold located.
In 1998, plastics processor Ferriot Inc. discovered the vacant oil refinery next to them - which they didn't own - was leaking oil and other chemicals underground. The land was ruled contaminated by city and environmental officials and Ferriot was forced to relocate.
"They started looking at all the factors and had considered moving out of the area completely, including out of state," Plusquellic says. "We had to find, in short order, property for them."
Eager to keep this employer of nearly 200 people in the city, Akron purchased the 37 acres around the Akron Square shopping center in the southeast part of the city. The aging retail complex was built in the 1950s, and by the late 1990s was mostly vacant and deteriorating.
"We ended up buying this property and tearing down the old buildings and making this land available to Ferriot," Plusquellic says. "We were able to keep them within Akron. A couple hundred jobs that we saved that could've been lost."
Ferriot purchased more than $7 million in property and built a $9 million facility on the rehabilitated brownfield site, renamed the Akron Square Business Park. To date, the site is also home to D&L Machine Co. and offices for Airborne Express and SBC.
"Most people who are in the business of making widgets aren't good at property and relocation," Plusquellic says. "Which means when they make a decision, all of a sudden they need it yesterday."
In the last 10 years, the greater Akron area exceeded $250 million in new and expanded manufacturing investment each year and averaged 19 new plants and expansions per year. This resulted in Site Selection magazine ranking the Akron, Ohio, metro area 32nd in the nation for locating new manufacturing investment between 1997 and 2000. Additionally, the June 2002 Expansion Management magazine ranked Akron as 13th out of the top 50 cities in the United States in attraction of European investment.
"(Plusquellic) has an economic base that is stubborn, so a lot of things he'd like to do are inhibited by the fact that he's a got a slow-growing economy to deal with, but that's true of Northeast Ohio in general," Iannone says. "We've got to accept the fact that we've got to do something really dramatic here and it needs to focus on the big issues."
This month marks the end of Plusquellic's term as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a nonpartisan organization of the nation's 1183 U.S. cities with populations of 30,000 or more. During his term, Plusquellic lobbied for the continuation of the federal Community Development Block Grant program, created by President Nixon in the 1970s. President Bush has proposed to slash the program from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development budget.
"People who know me know I'll fight but I'm much more interested in sitting down and trying to be creative to work out solutions to problems, like we did with the JEDDs," Plusquellic says. "I'd much rather come up with those ideas than to do battle, but we've been forced to do nothing but battle in this era we're in, where both the state and the federal level of government want to push more of the responsibility down to the local government without providing the resources."
With this kind of rhetoric, it's no wonder Plusquellic was widely speculated to be a Democratic front-runner for the governor's seat in next year's election. When Columbus Mayor and fellow Democrat Michael Coleman announced his candidacy on Feb. 1, Plusquellic said publicly that he wasn't interested in the job - at least for now.
"Hopefully down the road, I don't think this is going to be anything this year; I'd like to get people together to try and figure out a solution to the education funding problem in Ohio," Plusquellic says. "I can't think of a more important issue than that for the long-term benefit of the citizens of this state."
Although Plusquellic meets with Mayor Campbell regularly - as well as the mayors of the other largest cities in Ohio - he says whomever is the mayor of Cleveland is after November, that he or she must realize the city's importance to the state.
"That mayor needs to do what I think Mayor Campbell has tried to do, which is to be engaged in the entire region," Plusquellic says. "To try to figure out ways to cooperate and build success and yet, most of the feeling of separation comes from many of the suburbs in between Akron and Cleveland that want to disassociate themselves. It's such a shame because I think how we go, the rest of the region will go."