Despite renewed civic optimism, a new image and numerous programs that include public/private partnerships, why is the population of Northeast Ohio falling behind growing communities like Columbus and Nashville?
Does the creation of jobs lead to population growth? Or do we need to increase our population and workforce to attract more companies to our area?
It really is a matter of the chicken versus the egg. Deciding which should come first depends entirely on your viewpoint. Ultimately, it is both.
But if you look at population shifts of years past, like the great northern migration for well-paying manufacturing jobs post World War II or the recent migration of jobs toward the South and Southwest, job creation and population growth are inextricably linked.
According to the latest estimates from the World Population Review, which bases its findings on U.S. Census estimates, the population of Cuyahoga County has been in decline since 1980. However, the decline has slowed since 2011, with the county losing any where from a third to 0.4 of a percentage point annually over the last nine years.
At the same time, Lake County’s population has in some cases decreased at approximately the same clip as Cuyahoga’s decline, while at other times increasing slightly at about the same pace. Lorain County has been growing at a slightly faster pace than the population decline in Cuyahoga County, while Medina County is also enjoying a degree of growth. During that same period, Summit County has been up some years and down others.
In the seven counties that comprise Northeast Ohio, our population stands at 2.8 million, about the same as where we stood in 1980, at a time when our nation’s population is steadily increasing. It all points to a period of population stagnation across Northeast Ohio, at a time when our major population center Cleveland is supposedly enjoying something of a renaissance.
Although our area is ahead of other major metropolitan areas across the Midwest, we are certainly not the population or economic development juggernauts of Columbus or Nashville.
What advantages do those cities have over Northeast Ohio?
To start with, they are simply younger.
“Part of our challenge is our demographics,” says Joe Roman, CEO of the Greater Cleveland Partnership. “We are an aging population. We are an older community today than many of the cities that are growing, whether it’s Nashville, Columbus or wherever.”
Younger populations, by their very nature, have characteristics that are more conducive to job growth. Nashville is home to a strong music and entertainment industry, while Columbus benefits from The Ohio State University and other post-secondary institutions. Students attending that city’s colleges and universities have a tendency to stay in the communities where they went to school — something that is starting to happen here in Northeast Ohio as well.
However, our aging population “is not an excuse,” Roman is quick to point out. “There are things we should continue to do, whether it’s in immigration, or on focusing on retaining college students. We do have to realize that Cleveland was once a city that was growing quite quickly, with a robust population center.
“But unfortunately, with a population largely made of immigrants who eventually got older.”
How do we get younger?
College students play a big part of it, Roman says.
“But, it is also about creating an environment where once kids decide to come to college here they want to stay here,” he adds. “And that includes jobs, the environment and the cost of living.”
Certainly, the cost of living plays a major role in attracting young people to an area. Because of the incursion of student loan debt, many young professionals are looking for cheaper rents, both in terms of residential and commercial spaces, giving Cleveland an advantage. But they are also attracted to metropolitan areas with vibrant arts, culture, sports and outdoor recreation.
“And the caliber of our arts-and-culture community, sports scene and outdoor recreation opportunities is beyond what is found in cities of similar size,” says David Gilbert, president and CEO of Destination Cleveland.
Once out of college, many budding entrepreneurs also look for fertile economic environments where they can grow their own startup companies. Here, Northeast Ohio offers something of a mixed bag.
Northeast Ohio has a competitive advantage over areas in terms of “cost of living, quality of life, health care, incredible cultural assets, unique public/private and philanthropic partnerships that make things happen in ways other communities cannot replicate,” says Ray Leach, CEO of JumpStart, an organization that is focused on supporting and investing in tech startups as well as small businesses already located here.
“Given [that] almost all the entrepreneurs are starting from scratch, we are typically talking to individuals or firms of less than three people when we first meet our clients,” adds Leach. “So, we typically work with the companies who are here rather than spending significant time trying to attract these very young firms from outside the region.
“Having said this, we have launched some initiatives that are focused on attracting more established startups to Cleveland, including our collaboration with the Cleveland Clinic, UH and Plug and Play out of Silicon Valley. This collaboration enables us to attract more established startups from around the globe to Cleveland because they are interested in working with our hospital systems.”
There are two significant challenges JumpStart faces in its efforts to attracting budding companies.
“We are seeing investment funds focused on startups in other cities [that are] starting to be able to attract more established startups to their towns,” says Leach. “This has been primarily driven by the amount of capital these investment firms can invest into these startups.”
Occasionally, growing startups (with 10 to 25) employees will consider moving to another town if the investment is large enough and the company believes it will have better access to talent via the move, says Leach. Drive Capital in Columbus being an excellent example.
“The biggest impediment in my mind is access to talent, which also correlates to needing to find new ways to enable everyone in our community to more broadly participate in economic growth,” says Leach. “Cleveland has a large percentage of its population who, for a wide range of reasons, have not had the opportunity to fully participate in the economy. Our economic development system must continue to find ways to address this challenge.”
Where do we find talent?
A workforce that is ready, willing and able is certainly an inducement to relocate to a city.
“We attract more people, or we make sure the people we have here are properly trained for the jobs that exist today or into the future,” says Bill Koehler, CEO of Team NEO, an organization focused on driving business development outcomes in the 18 county region of Northeast Ohio. “We also need to make sure our labor pools are developed through our educational system.
“When we talk to companies that are thinking of investing here, the first questions they ask include, ‘How do I become comfortable that your area has deep talent pools? And how can I access them?’”
Although part of that equation involves retaining students who graduate from our local colleges and universities, another component includes the education and training of our current population, whether that means a four-year degree or other forms of post-secondary education. Of course, we also need to make sure that all people have access to post-secondary education, regardless of the demographic or financial background.
Say Yes to Education Cleveland is a local program just coming on line that will provide scholarships to all public universities, community colleges, and Pell-eligible certificate programs in Ohio — as well as over 115 private colleges and universities — to eligible students who live in Cleveland and graduate from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District or a partnering charter high school.
“Programs like Say Yes Cleveland certainly give me hope,” says Robert C. Smith, a partner in Cerity Partners and market leader of its Cleveland Office.
In addition to his many philanthropic and civic endeavors, Smith is also involved with Cuyahoga Community College’s Board of Visitors, an advisory group of business and civic leaders, representing a cross-section of industry sectors from Northeast Ohio communities. These leaders assist the College in developing responses to the workforce needs facing Northeast Ohio. Providing access to higher education for the economically disadvantaged is important, “our economy also depends on the replacement of [workers for] jobs that we already have,” says Smith. “And there are a lot of people in our area who aren’t in the workforce, who should be. That’s why we need better training to take their skills
to another level where there is more demand.”
But we must also slake a thirst for knowledge in economically disadvantaged areas, where populations are
on the decline, like our inner-ring suburbs. These challenges also represent unique opportunities for growth, notes Roman.
“One challenge is to build an urban school system that is the model for the rest of the country — that will solve an amazing number of problems,” he says. “The other is to embrace the value of diversity in our workforce. We can not grow our workforce or our economy if we don’t lead with the advantages that a diverse population can bring to the marketplace.”
Growing and making our inner-ring suburbs stronger also solves the issue of economic disparity in our region.
“it also contributes to attracting outsiders,” Roman adds. “If people know Cleveland as being a robust, diverse city, people will want to come here.”
How can we seal the deal with companies contemplating a move to our region?
By better meeting their specific workforce needs, whether it’s four-year-degreed engineers or professions that only require certification.
“We need to educate our communities to the fact that four-year colleges aren’t for everybody,” says Roman. “We need to get more information out about the continuum of professions in manufacturing and trades that require a different protocol than going to college.”
And many of those professions offer well-paying jobs.
What can we leverage to facilitate growth?
At one time, Cleveland was considered “the Best Location in the Nation.” Although there have been dramatic population shifts toward the South and Southwest, our city hasn’t moved. We’re still within driving distance of more than 60 percent of our nation’s population. There have also been significant logistical improvements linking our highways and rail system to the St. Lawrence Seaway, giving us easier access to Europe and the rest of the world.
The Port of Cleveland’s service to Belgium gives us a distinct competitive advantage over cities like Chicago. Freighters servicing Europe only have to travel as far as Cleveland to link of with our intermodal port and national rail system that extends well into the Midwest and beyond, rather than plying through Lake Huron and down Lake Michigan.
“The European service Will Friedman established is really a good start,” says Smith, who also serves on the Board of Directors of the Port of Cleveland, “but I think we can do better. What we have with the Great Lakes and the Port of Cleveland could be leveraged into a whole lot more.”
Can we do a better job of marketing our area?
Any person in sales will tell you that it’s easier to sell more to an existing customer or someone you know than to forge a new relationship. The same is true of building our region’s economy.
“Local businesses need to stay more action oriented and proactive with our vendors and friends who have businesses in other locations,” says Smith. “We need to make sure they understand the opportunities they have to grow their businesses here in Northeast Ohio.”
Major companies in our area have vendors, secondary and tertiary suppliers, that can be convinced to move here to be closer to their customers. It’s one of the major avenues of growth identified by Team NEO, says Koehler.
“We have to increasingly refine our understanding of the unique characteristics and supply chains in every market,” says Koehler, “so that when companies consider locating in the 18 counties of Northeast Ohio, they can easily see the unique aspects of our area that they find strategically important.”
Although embracing emerging industries and companies in the high-tech industries like block chain and health care help to elevate the image of our city as progressive and growing, we can also better exploit our city’s new image, made possible by organizations like Destination Cleveland.
“We must harness the power of the visitor to ensure we’re getting the most out of each person that comes to the area,” says Gilbert.
The organization announced in March that it was, “leveraging our expertise in attracting people to the city and collaborating with other organizations to do this,” says Gilbert. “We know that when people come to Cleveland as a leisure or business visitor, their perceptions often change dramatically while they are here. To capitalize on that perception change, we are pursuing new initiatives that will use business and leisure visits as a platform to introduce the concept of Cleveland as a destination for long-term investment. Ultimately, we need to convince visitors to choose Cleveland as a place to live, work, get into business, study or retire.
“We also know from research that site selectors’ perceptions of an area are often influenced by business travel. Destination Cleveland is working to harness the power of the visitor to help accelerate the community’s growth by transforming short-term visitor investments into long-term business and resident investments.”
Most organizations applaud Destination Cleveland for playing a major role in bringing national and world-class events to our city, like; the Republican National Convention in 2016, last month’s MLB All-Star Game and the upcoming NFL draft.
However, they are simply marketing assets that are already here. The city can not afford to rest on its laurels and let Destination Cleveland drive growth and change.
“Destination Cleveland does a great job of selling the assets of the city, but it really is the rest of the city that has built those assets,” says Roman. “For 30 years our business community and the public sector have been building and reinvesting in the assets that made Cleveland a million-person city over 70 years ago.
“So, we already have a set of amenities that would be expected in many major metropolitan areas.”
Which includes great sports venues and unique tourism opportunities like the second largest theater district in the country at Playhouse Square, or University Circle with its world-class art museum and symphony.
“Our community, which includes the public/private partnerships, has built our assets which are now there for our visitor’s bureau to sell,” says Roman.
But we can’t let up on that kind of development.
One of the pieces that helped attract major events was the Huntington Convention Center, which opened its doors six years ago last June, Roman notes.
“In order to further exploit the efforts of Destination Cleveland, we must continue to invest in major projects like these if we are ever able to see appreciable growth in the future,” he says.
What’s the bottom line?
There is an old business adage that says, “if you’re not growing, you’re dying.” According to all of the Community Leaders contacted, better collaboration is the key to Northeast Ohio’s future growth.
“We need a more unified effort, an agreement behind the work that we are doing,” says Smith. “There are a lot of meetings with various groups, and there is too much discussion about structure rather than outcomes.
“Organizations involved with economic development need to talk about what can be done to drive better outcomes. Then, we can talk about the resources that can make it all happen.”
There also need to be greater transparency between civic organizations.
“There are a lot of professional people that use as currency the information that they have, instead of using it for collaboration and cooperation,” he adds.