By Tom Breckenridge, The Cleveland Plain De...
November 15, 2009, 9:55AM
Top corporate leaders in Akron and Cleveland are quietly discussing ways to better align and fund economic development efforts in the region.
The strategizing is called NEO 77, in recognition of the Interstate highway that links the region's largest cities.
The talks include ways to broaden the financial support for six specialty development organizations in the region, whose missions range from attracting new business to growing minority-owned companies.
The efforts of organizations like Team NEO and NorTech are paying off, business leaders believe.
But the "alphabet soup" of organizations confuses some corporate leaders, whose companies are fielding multiple requests for funding.
"Major corporations have a person from NorTech coming in one day, then a person from Team NEO the next day," said Thomas Strauss, chief executive at Summa Health System and board chairman for the Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce.
Strauss said talks started this summer with Henry Meyer, chief executive of KeyCorp and board chairman for the Greater Cleveland Partnership, Cleveland's chamber of commerce; and Christopher Connor, chief executive of Sherwin-Williams Co., vice chairman of the partnership and board chairman for Team NEO, the region's business-attraction organization.
Strauss emphasized that talks were in an early stage and would include Canton business leaders, too.
Meyer and Connor declined to be interviewed. Their spokesmen referred questions to Joe Roman, president of the Greater Cleveland Partnership.
Roman said the chambers are considering how to better link their "dollars and leadership" in support of the economic development organizations.
"We're looking at how we can sustain what has been a very potent system," said Roman, whose chamber funnels hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly to the specialty development groups.
In the past five years, the six organizations had an impact valued at hundreds of millions of dollars on the region, by attracting public investment and venture capital and expanding payrolls, officials said.
"It's clear the programs we're pursuing in collaboration with the business community are working," said Brad Whitehead, president of the Fund for Our Economic Future, a pool of philanthropic and nonprofit entities that has directed $38 million to the six organizations the past six years.
But the Fund is in a new money-raising cycle now. There's no assurance it can raise a similar amount of money, or that it will even exist after the next three years.
That's why anxious leaders of economic development efforts hope NEO 77 results in more dependable financial support in the long run.
"Fund raising in general . . . requires a different approach from what we're doing today," said Rick Batyko, head of the Cleveland Plus Marketing Alliance, which supports Team NEO's business-marketing efforts. "To my understanding, that's what NEO 77 is primarily about."
Batyko watched his budget drop to $1.8 million this year, from $2.2 million, due to a cut in state funding.
Rebecca Bagley, new president of NorTech, which promotes high-tech industries, projects that her $2.4 million budget will drop next year.
That means she'll be spending more time raising money, with direct appeals to chambers of commerce outside Cuyahoga County.
NEO 77 should be an opportunity to consider establishing a regional council of business leaders, Whitehead suggested.
The council could help set economic development priorities and direct money to them, Whitehead said. A council would allow the region to act more quickly on business-building opportunities, Whitehead said.
"We hope [NEO 77] will lead to greater regional coordination among the business leadership," Whitehead said.