Issue: May/June 2012
The idea of regionalism isn’t the problem. It’s the fact that we’re trying to sell businesses on some vague place called Northeast Ohio.
As soon as I accepted an invitation to speak to the Sales & Marketing Executives of Akron, I knew I was in trouble. All my funny stories were about Clevelanders, and I knew enough to know they wouldn’t go over in Akron. I had no funny stories about the president of the University of Akron or the mayor.
So what to do? I decided it would be a good opportunity to think about the relationship between Cleveland and Akron. I had recently attended several special events in Akron and was beginning to wonder whether the effort to market Northeast Ohio as one region was all wet.
There has been much talk about regionalism, and I have been one of its greatest proponents, offering up the idea that Northeast Ohio is a single region with a sum greater than its parts. Unfortunately, the problem with this idea is that I keep meeting people who don’t believe it to be true. To many people living in Lorain or Akron, regionalism means an attempt to diminish one of the things they value most: their deep feelings for the communities in which they live.
If the objective of regionalism is to build and promote Northeast Ohio as a great place to grow a business, we need the full support of the people who live here. I know from personal experience that this is not yet the case.
As I began to prepare my remarks for Akron SME, I realized the problem: Regionalism is the wrong word for the right idea. Because it is the wrong word, it is preventing Northeast Ohioans from generating the natural enthusiasm needed to engage in building something very worthwhile — a region known as a center of business and entrepreneurship.
I would like to present three reasons why I believe regionalism should be struck from our vocabulary as we pursue the goal of attracting business. It was just after World War II that American cities realized there was great economic benefit to be gained by attracting companies. This was called “economic development.” I suggest we return to this phrase as fast as possible. Here’s why:
Reason No. 1: Pride in where we live is second only to pride in family and career. People get excited about improving their own communities. They want to do it for themselves, their children and their grandchildren. Love of community is a powerful force. It was wishful thinking on the part of the Founding Fathers to name their country the United States of America. There was nothing united about the 13 colonies. They were diverse, they were strong-minded and they were proud. They understood that it was going to be their individual successes that would provide the resources to address common problems and opportunities. Northeast Ohio is no different. It will be the success of our cities and towns that will make our region a success.
Reason No. 2: Companies don’t locate in regions. They locate in cities and towns. Cities and towns are brands. Attracting business to Northeast Ohio is all about marketing, and marketing is all about brands. The more unique our cities and towns, the more success we will have in marketing their benefits toward availability to top talent, proximity to outstanding universities and research facilities, and vibrant neighborhoods. The University of Akron has promoted in its advertisements the reality of Northeast Ohio as a region by showing a satellite photo, shot at night. The bright lights of our cities and towns geographically define us.
Reason No. 3: Economic development is a financial transaction that benefits everyone. The rewards are great, but our communities cannot go it alone. Chattanooga, Tenn., has attracted $2 billion in investments and 7,500 new jobs from companies such as Volkswagen and Amazon. The cost: $630 million in tax incentives and land grants. This is why the idea of a coordinated regional effort to attract this type of investment is so important. Structured properly, economic development is a financial transaction that benefits everyone in the region.
So there you have it; at least three reasons why we should be united as a region in pursuing, with all our might, the business of economic development and why the word “regionalism” should not be used. Northeast Ohio is not one region. It is a unique group of cities and towns with an amazing number of assets that, if marketed effectively, can establish our reputation as one of America’s great centers of business innovation and growth.
As a final word, I should point out that we have an organization with exactly the right name and the right mission for the job. Economic development is a team sport. What could be better than having our regional economic development efforts fall under the banner of Team NEO? This organization and those partnering with it are establishing a national reputation for aggressively selling the region. How much more effective will Team NEO be if the people of Northeast Ohio really believe the benefits of economic development will also benefit them?
We can build a brand new world in Akron and Lorain and Cleveland if we can remember that Northeast Ohio is not the brand — our cities and towns are. Remember, Procter & Gamble got rich by selling Tide, not by selling Procter & Gamble.
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