Developing Opportunities: Bridging the Gap in Northeast Ohio’s Manufacturing Site Inventory

by | Nov 20, 2023

The Fund for Our Economic Future supported the creation of the Developing Opportunities report by Team NEO. This report is part of our work bringing jobs to people by influencing site decisions to equitably grow the regional economy. We are pleased to share an excerpt of Team NEO’s report below. The full report can be found here.

Introduction

The Developing Opportunities report is a vital call to action to address the supply-demand imbalance of readily available site locations in Northeast Ohio. The goal is to enhance our region’s competitiveness for business investment and the probability of securing more manufacturing attraction deals in Northeast Ohio (NEO). Based on Team NEO’s business development expertise and real demand experience from project flows over the past two years, this research provides insights into future business investment opportunities and the current state of NEO’s manufacturing site inventory readiness. The report highlights industry trends in the most active sectors seeking site locations (advanced manufacturing, semiconductor, energy storage, and food production) as well as available sites that meet high standards of readiness. In the current economic climate, the United States faces a pressing challenge: the tightening demand for manufacturing sites. This scarcity is not just an inconvenience—it is a rallying cry for regions to mobilize and demonstrate their capacity to meet the evolving and exacting needs of industry. As we find ourselves amidst an intensifying national arms race for business attraction and large-scale corporate expansion, the imperative for preparedness has never been more critical. In NEO’s real estate market, vacant office spaces abound post-pandemic, while the demand for manufacturing sites is growing, driven by global trends relating to supply chain onshoring/re-shoring and our national interest in enhancing the production of key components. NEO is well-positioned to benefit from this trend, but the region has been slow to build new inventory over the past 50 years. Only recently has strategic site development risen in prominence. This report highlights the opportunity for our community to invest in well planned and collaborative site development to help us progress strategically and quickly in our joint efforts to enhance our competitiveness. This will ultimately increase our chances of winning business attraction projects.

What is the Opportunity?

Northeast Ohio, confronted by growing expectations of companies and site selectors to greater speed and certainty in business development projects, needs to improve our ability to meet those expectations by building a dynamic inventory of readily marketable sites that allow us to respond quickly and confidently in competitive site selection processes. The market today favors proactive responses that include assurance of immediate site control, or a clear path to it, and suitability with desired site attributes. The benchmark for perceived readiness has escalated, setting a high bar where only the best-prepared can win. To contextualize the challenge, let us consider the primary raw material of regional development: land. There is a common misconception that the mere possession of land, including underutilized brownfields and farmland, equates to an inherent competitive edge. However, the presence of land is merely the first piece of the puzzle. Our available land in its current state—undeveloped, unprepared, and not compliant with industry needs— does not constitute a “readily marketable site.” It is just land. Instead, the phrase “readily marketable site” connotes an ecosystem fully equipped with the necessary infrastructure, regulatory approvals, environmental clearances, and community support that reduce industry time, risk, and cost burdens. Time is of the essence, and our response time is alarmingly short. When a company considers investment, it seeks not just potential but certainty—confidence that its timelines will be met, its risks mitigated, and its expenditures justified. We cannot afford the luxury of a reactive stance, waiting to adapt to demands as they arise. Our region must adopt a stance of aggressive preparation, leaning in with intention and foresight to transform our assets into industry-ready sites. The call to action is clear: We must speed up site readiness, ensuring that when opportunity knocks, we can answer with a resounding “Yes, we’re ready.” By doing so, we not only enter the competition—we become contenders for victory.

How Did We Get Here?

Historical Development Trends

Northeast Ohio experienced significant changes in its population, growth patterns, and industrial development over the past six decades. The 1960s marked the beginning of a challenging period for NEO’s population. At the start of the decade, the region’s cities were thriving industrial hubs, attracting residents seeking employment opportunities in manufacturing and related industries. The region’s transportation infrastructure as we know it today was constructed at this time, anticipating continued growth. The region was blessed with a vast highway, commuter rail, commercial rail, and utility infrastructure to support a further increase in population and economic activity. The early- to mid-1980s were marked by population decline as structural economic changes took hold. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw signs of stabilization, and the region saw practical efforts to diversify the economy and increase needed infrastructure investments. Much of this growth occurred in the region’s suburban communities, making stronger geographic connections between the region’s metropolitan areas. The I-77 corridor quickly connected Cleveland, Akron, and Canton, while development along I-76 and Route 30 hosted industrial growth between Mansfield, Akron, Canton, and Youngstown.

In recent years, several industrial development and population trends have been shaping the region:

  1. Diversification into Advanced Industries: NEO strategically diversified into advanced industries such as healthcare, biotechnology, polymers, energy storage, and advanced manufacturing. This diversification has increased the presence of high-skilled jobs and mitigated some of the volatility of our region’s business cycles. 
  1. Urban Renewal and Redevelopment: Ongoing revitalization projects in Akron, Canton, Sandusky, and Wooster have attracted investments and businesses, revitalized older communities, and made them attractive places to live and work.
  1. Education and Workforce Development: Qualifications for in-demand entry-level jobs are increasing, and employer needs for talent to fill existing open jobs remain severe. Collaboration is growing between educational institutions and businesses to nurture a skilled workforce and retain young talent in the region. Insights from Team NEO’s Aligning Opportunities report and related supplements addressing obstacles to achievement based on race, gender, and disabilities have informed efforts to align education and skill development with the evolving demands of the job market. 
  1. Quality of Life Enhancement: “Quality of life” has taken on a new level of significance for companies considering a major business investment in a community because of its close relationship with talent attraction and retention. Investments in parks, cultural attractions, and amenities have improved the region’s overall quality of life and enhanced our community’s attractiveness as a place where companies and their employees can thrive. 

Regional Growth Patterns 

Northeast Ohio’s land use and development patterns do not always align with population trends. Specifically, outward expansion of the region’s housing, industrial, and retail opportunities has continued without a corresponding increase in the region’s population or economic vitality. This phenomenon is often referred to as sprawl without growth. The result is a landscape where new development takes place, the overall population remains relatively stable, the infrastructure is under-utilized, vacant properties are abandoned, and public services or other civic resources are strained. These factors lead to increased commute times, a reduction of green spaces, environmental challenges, and higher taxes. Significant state and utility subsidies are often needed for new development rather than using those resources to redevelop existing land with available utilities, often a more cost-effective use of available resources. 

The Legacy of Overbuilt Infrastructure

The vast infrastructure developed during Northeast Ohio’s peak years, notably during the 1960s, presents a double-edged sword. On one side, it symbolizes the region’s past prosperity and anticipated growth. Conversely, as populations and activities migrated out of the region, large parts of this infrastructure became underutilized, some of it even obsolete. Though initially constructed to serve a burgeoning population and thriving industries, the extensive roadways, utility systems, and other public facilities now lay in excess, serving fewer people and enterprises. The ongoing costs to maintain, upgrade, and repurpose these infrastructures increasingly burden the current population and tax base.

What is the Opportunity for Northeast Ohio?

Looking forward, Northeast Ohio’s extensive, though underutilized, infrastructure presents an opportunity to accelerate strategic investment in site development that aligns with the demand associated with some of the most attractive advanced manufacturing business investment projects Northeast Ohio is seeing. With our existing foundation of transportation, utility, and public facility infrastructure assets, Northeast Ohio is well positioned to compete for and win major investment projects in industries requiring extensive energy and connectivity, such as advanced manufacturing. For example:

  1. Infill Development and Adaptive Reuse: Rather than letting old infrastructure decay, NEO can focus on redevelopment projects, transforming unused or underutilized spaces into new opportunities for business attraction and expansion in legacy job hubs. The existing infrastructure may need to be updated or enhanced, but using existing infrastructure can mitigate time, money, and risk obstacles in other locations.
  1. Driving Brownfield Development: Leveraging tax breaks, grants, or other financial incentives can drive development on previously used industrial lands, which often already possess the required infrastructure. These redeveloped sites can be compelling for large manufacturers looking for extensive plots with built in utilities and logistical attributes that made them attractive to previous industrial owners.
  1. Smart Infrastructure Upgrades: Integrating modern technology, such as smart grids, sensors, and sustainable energy solutions, can transform aging infrastructure into state-of-the-art facilities. This breathes new life into the existing infrastructure and positions NEO as a sustainable and smart urban development leader. 
  1. Public-Private Partnerships (PPP): Collaborative efforts between the public and private sectors can help defray costs while maximizing the benefits of redevelopment and repurposing. PPPs can be used to revitalize transportation corridors, create mixed-use developments, or launch urban regeneration projects. 5. Promoting Regional Connectivity: By enhancing the existing transportation links and improving efficiency, NEO can strengthen its position as a regional nexus. Better connectivity will facilitate commerce, tourism, and even daily commutes, making it a more attractive place for residents and businesses.

As you can see, Northeast Ohio’s extensive yet underutilized infrastructure presents a unique opportunity. With strategic thinking, public and private collaboration, and a focus on modern needs and sustainability, NEO can leverage its past to pave the way for a prosperous future.

Other Resources:

Full Report: https://northeastohioregion.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/Team-NEO_Developing-Opportunities-Report.pdf

Developing Opportunities Industry Sheets: https://northeastohioregion.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/Team-NEO_Developing-Opportunties-_Industry-Sheets.pdf 

Developing Opportunities: Site & Location Analysis Toolkit: https://northeastohioregion.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/Team-NEO_Developing-Opportunities_Toolkit.pdf 

Developing Opportunities: List of Active Needs by Industry: https://northeastohioregion.com/active-needs/