Action Now Could Alleviate Future Troubles: Report predicting a lack of regional resources down the road prompts proposal of a new nonprofit group

by | Jun 20, 2014

Grace Gallucci hopes to build a public-private partnership that will toss around ideas for getting Northeast Ohio to 2040 in good economic shape.

Several business community leaders are intrigued by the idea and acknowledge the need to be involved in long-range regional planning, but they’re reluctant to sign on to one more organization.

Gallucci, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, is about to begin drumming up support for a nonprofit meeting ground for public planners, public and nonprofit economic development professionals, political leaders and, especially, the business community. Her goal is to ensure that the region and its communities, decades down the road, aren’t facing choices between cutbacks in basic services or steep tax increases to maintain roads, pick up the trash and police the neighborhoods.

It would work off the results of a federally funded, three-year planning program called NEOSCC, or the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium. That group, guided by 33 public, philanthropic and educational organizations across 12 counties, produced a study earlier this year that forecast that the current pattern of development in Northeast Ohio will not generate sufficient new tax revenue to maintain existing services in nearly every corner of the region.

It was part of a federal program called the Sustainable Communities Initiative, which was created to help a select group of cities make smart economic investment choices. Northeast Ohio won a $4.25 million grant, and a group of local philanthropies, led by the Fund for Our Economic Future, kicked in $2.2 million.

“I’m going to be soliciting for 12 to 20 board members who have a vested interest in keeping the region viable and vibrant,” Gallucci said of the planned new organization. “I’m looking for people who have influence in their organizations or their industry or have some civic influence.”

Bradley Whitehead, president of the Future Fund, believes the business community has a large stake in keeping the cost of government from rising through the roof, as suburbs consume more land and require more services without any growth in the number of taxpayers.

“The corporate community says they want lower taxes,” he said. “But they (haven’t gotten involved) in asking why taxes are so high.”

Whitehead and others foresee the new group as a place to lobby government to be more efficient and collaborative.

The business community, though, barely dipped its toes into the work of NEOSCC.

That group’s 228-page report, released in February, starts with the prognosis that the population of the 12-county region that stretches around Cuyahoga County from Lorain to Ashtabula and from Wayne to Mahoning, is likely to grow only modestly.

The NEOSCC report contends that without active planning and collaboration among communities and businesses the wealthiest county in the region would be worse off financially by 2040 than the weakest county today, if the region pays no greater attention to the way its land is developed or redeveloped.

Now, Gallucci is hoping to attract business members to her board and, eventually, to make them dues paying members of the new organization which, for now, she’s calling NEOSCC 2.0.

Wanted: More federal money

Joe Roman, president of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, one of several regional chambers of commerce in Northeast Ohio, would like to see a regional discussion about how to pay for maintaining the region’s roads and sewers as well as for whatever new infrastructure might be needed. But he’s not ready to buy into a new organization.

“I’d be very interested in hearing how (Gallucci) wants to move into Phase 2,” he said. “And I would be happy to host her at a meeting of leaders of the Greater Akron Chamber, the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce” and other similar groups.

Pat Kelly, economic development director of FirstEnergy Corp., the largest regional power company, has been a participant in the NEOSCC process and supports the concept of a regional effort to tackle the issues NEOSCC has raised.

Since little population growth is forecast, FirstEnergy already has a network of power lines and substations that can serve the population of the region decades from now without the added cost of beefing up the grid in what are now rural areas.

But he, too, isn’t ready for NEOSCC Phase 2.

“We want more federal funding rather than a new nonprofit,” he said. “I was thinking of a collaboration between chambers of commerce.”

New ways of thinking

Gallucci will talk with business leaders in the weeks ahead because she believes it’s critical for the region to act now. And she agrees with Roman on the need to better plan for future infrastructure improvements.

She also is concerned about the impact of land use decisions on infrastructure costs. NEOSCC’s analysis shows equal concern for the cost of stranding employable urban dwellers miles from potential jobs as it does for preserving the farmland of the rural areas.

Gallucci said, for example, that the NEOSCC report believes the region will need to find ways — perhaps by creating an integrated regional transit system that would replace today’s fragmented system of individual county transit systems — to get car-less workers to jobs a county away.

At the same time, she said, Northeast Ohio needs to think hard about committing to build a new road for a plant on a former farm that puts jobs even farther from potential employees.

“We’ve got to make sure we can get employees to the places of employment and connect them in a way that isn’t costing a gazillion dollars,” she said.