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Jamilla Naji art at 78th St Studios - Photo Bob Perkoski
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for these area nonprofits, 'regionalism' has economic, not political, focus

Chris Thompson, director of Fund For Our Economic Future - Photo Bob Perkoski
Chris Thompson, director of Fund For Our Economic Future - Photo Bob Perkoski

The prevailing impression of regionalism that has been bandied about Northeast Ohio for the better part of a decade does not mean what many people think it means, says Chris Thompson, director of Fund for Our Economic Future

The much mulled-over consolidation of over 450 municipalities is not intrinsically regionalism, says Thompson, whose organization -- a collaboration of more than 100 foundations and philanthropists -- encourages a regional agenda with the long-term goal of economic revitalization.
 
According to Thompson, regionalism "is defined by economic activity, not political boundaries."
 
The fund director is not alone in this assessment. Local marketing and business nonprofits like the Fund, Cleveland Plus, Team NEO and MAGNET view the union of Cleveland, Akron, Canton, Youngstown and the hundreds of cities and towns in between as a 6,000-square-mile, four-million-person opportunity to compete in an increasingly global economy.
 
These groups are working both separately and in concert to leverage the area's business and cultural assets to attract audiences deemed critical to the health of the region -- industry leaders, convention site selectors, tourists and more. Political consolidation may have a place in the region's future, say area promoters, but the economy is their immediate focus.
 
Finding the 'Plus'
 
With the goal of attracting businesses and tourists to the region, Cleveland Plus Marketing Alliance lives by the slogan: “We’ve Got it All. Together.” The group's marketing efforts help area residents communicate the positive attributes of the "Cleveland Plus region," which is anchored by Cleveland and bolstered by the major metros of Akron-Canton and Youngstown.
 
Cleveland Plus was established in 2005 as the Greater Cleveland Marketing Alliance, with founding members including The Greater Cleveland Partnership, Positively Cleveland and Team NEO. Created with a goal of increasing economic development in Northeast Ohio, the group developed a regional brand with input from university and government officials along with area businesses and marketers.

The initial research offered several revelations, says Cleveland Plus executive director Rick Batyko, who joined the group in 2006. Through polling, the organization learned that about 60 percent of people living outside Northeast Ohio had no opinion on the region. While some residents closer to home did carry a negative perception of the area, overall there existed a positive energy, one fueled by cultural resources and new opportunities within the educational and business realms.
 
The Cleveland Plus brand, which endorses Northeast Ohio as culturally rich, yet affordable, was launched in 2007. "There is a critical mass here," says Batyko. "Cleveland by itself is not big enough to show up in the global marketplace."
 
To help spread the word, Cleveland Plus hired public relations experts Dix & Eaton to launch a national media relations program. Since then, stories about regional efforts have appeared in The New York Times, Forbes and The Wall Street Journal. The group also has a social media presence on Facebook and Twitter. 
 
For 2012, the marketing group's fifth anniversary, Batyko is expecting an uptick from last year's budget of $1.6 million to something north of $2 million. The additional funds will help the organization continue to promote regional development efforts such as Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.'s new $154 million headquarters in Akron.
 
"We need to continue to market our assets," says Batyko. "The region is rebounding, and we see great growth [in Northeast Ohio] over the next two years."
 
Jobs, not Politics, the Focus
 
While Cleveland Plus promotes the area's assets on a national scale, Team NEO concentrates on attracting businesses to the region. A nonprofit joint venture of several metro chambers of commerce, Team NEO acts as a resource for companies considering an expansion or relocation into Northeast Ohio.
 
As of the end of 2010, the organization reported 41 new company expansions or relocations in the Cleveland Plus region, totaling 3,500 new jobs and more than $135 million in annual payroll.
 
Team NEO CEO Tom Waltermire points to the area as a low-cost, centralized location connected to major Midwestern business hubs. The region, he adds, has become a world-renowned epicenter for biomedical business, with further strengths in advance manufacturing, research and technology, and is home to 30 colleges and universities cultivating a deep talent pool.
 
While the political aspects of municipal regionalization have been a topic of discussion for years, such demarcations are of little concern to companies looking for a strong economic foothold, says Waltermire, who has been with Team NEO for six years.

"These [firms] will go wherever the customers are," he says. "We're creating a message that Northeast Ohio is a place where businesses can succeed."
 
In late October, the Cleveland-based business-attraction group was named one of the state's six JobsOhio regional partners and was awarded a one-year, $4.1 million grant in support of its efforts by the Third Frontier Commission.
 
Team NEO will use a portion of that money to operate a local JobsOhio office. Another $3 million will assist the plans of partner organizations, including the Greater Akron Chamber and the Greater Cleveland Partnership, in creating more local jobs, increasing capital investment and boosting the region’s competitive strengths.
 
Waltermire is embracing Team NEO's expanded role in helping other organizations bolster Northeast Ohio's economic health. "We have partners in 18 counties," he says. "This is not a closed system."
 
'Future'-rama
 
One of those partners is the nonprofit Fund for Our Economic Future, created in 2004 with an eye toward grantmaking, research and civic engagement. The philanthropic effort is governed by member organizations and individuals that have committed $100,000 or more over a three-year period. According to director Thompson, the fund has raised more than $70 million since its inception to help strengthen the region's competiveness by attracting and growing companies.
 
In 2007, the nonprofit unveiled Advance Northeast Ohio, described as a "regional competitiveness agenda" for the area's long-term economic revitalization. The agenda, developed with the input of residents who participated in a two-year engagement effort conducted by the fund, promotes four priority areas: talent development, business growth, racial and economic inclusion, and government collaboration and efficiency.
 
The plan relies in part on business clusters growing around regional assets, says Thompson. Wayne County's manufacturing base, for example, receives materials and professional services from suppliers in Cuyahoga County.
 
"Those kinds of connections increase all the time," says Thompson. "The economy going global increased the importance of regional connectedness."
 
The fund, with a three-year, $25 million budget ending in 2013, has concentrated much of its efforts around high-tech solutions. Among the groups it supports are bioscience incubator BioEnterprise and MAGNET, which advocates for the manufacturing sector. The fund also grants organizations that support a regional agenda, or those aiming to increase the skill level of Northeast Ohio's workforce.
 
Signs point in a positive direction for the local economy, and Thompson wants to get everyone involved in the revival.

"We need to have the business community and public sector make the same case for a regional agenda," he says. Government officials, hindered by a system that doesn't encourage collaboration, are welcome to the party, too, he adds. "Increasing connections is the challenge ahead," he says.

Photos Bob Perkoski *except where noted  
-  Images 1 - 3:  Chris Thompson, director of Fund for Our Economic Future 
-  Image 4: * courtesy of Fund for Our Economic Future
- Image 5: Greg Zucca, strategic program officer for Cuyahoga County Development of Development * courtesy of Fund for Our Economic Future
- Images 6 & 7: Rick Batyko, executive director of CLE+
- Image 8: HC Summit * courtesy of CLE+
- Image 9: CLE+ Plus Bus * courtesy of CLE+
- Image 10: Tom Waltermire, CEO of Team NEO * courtesy of Team NEO



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