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Panel discusses regional economic development

The Akron Press Club and the Cleveland City Club co-hosted the panel on the Fund for Our Economic Future at Quaker Station. Panelists included Christine Amer Mayer, president of the GAR Foundation, Amy Liu, senior fellow and co-director of the Metropolitan Policy Project at the Brookings Institute, Brad Whitehead, president of the Fund for Our Economic Future and David Molpus, executive editor at WCPN who moderated the discussion. (Photo courtesy of the Akron Press Club).

SCOTT PIEPHO
Legal News Reporter

Published: December 30, 2014

A company with facilities in Akron making synthetic crude oil from waste plastic was held up as a successful example of the climate of economic development encouraged by the Fund for Our Economic Future.

Vadxx, a company headquartered in Cleveland, uses technology based on research and development done in Akron and is building a production facility here and at other sites around the world.

Fund President Brad Whitehead, speaking on a panel observing the fund’s 10th anniversary, noted the many different organizations that helped get the company moving.

“It got support from GLIDE (The Great Lakes Innovation and Development Enterprise), it got a $1 million from the state, it got support from JumpStart, Magnet [Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network] helped them with some of the technical support and NorTech introduced them to Rockwell.” According to the fund’s annual report, Magnet, NorTech and JumpStart are each grantees.

Akron Press Club and the Cleveland City Club co-hosted the panel at Quaker Station. Other panelists included Christine Amer Mayer, president of the GAR Foundation, Amy Liu, senior fellow and co-director of the Metropolitan Policy Project at the Brookings Institute and David Molpus, executive editor at WCPN who moderated the discussion.

The fund was formed in response to the 2001 multimedia news series “A Quiet Crisis” that looked at the decline in traditional industries in northeast Ohio. A series of events named “Voices and Choices” were convened to bring thousands of people together to give input into the fund’s agenda. Over the past 10 years the fund has raised and disbursed over $100 million. Much of the work has been focused on transforming the economy from heavy industry to knowledge-based industries.

The panelists agreed that bringing philanthropy together with the business community has been one of the great challenges and accomplishments of the effort. According to Mayer, it is difficult to bring business to the table because they are focused on the day-to-day work of running their businesses. Whitehead noted that because bringing philanthropy and business together was so complex, they have not been able to bring either the public sector or higher education on board at the same level.

To illustrate how far the region has come, Whitehead recounted an argument 10 years ago between venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. VCs said there are no ideas entrepreneurs said there is no capital. One prominent venture capitalist said “you show me the billion dollar idea I missed and then I’ll believe you.” The region now hosts two companies capitalized at over a $1 billion each – CoverMyMeds and TOA Technologies. Those companies offer “proof points” that new, economically vital ideas exist here.

The panel acknowledged that challenges remain. All of the panelists agreed that the region’s economic growth is increasingly polarized mirroring that of the country as whole. A relatively small percentage of people are benefiting from economic growth.

In addition Molpos quoted a report issued a month ago by the Regional Competitiveness Council finding that “northeast Ohio is steadily losing economic ground and has done so since 1990. The gap between northeast Ohio and the nation has been getting wider.”

He concluded that “overall the economy since the recession has more or less flatlined.” Whitehead called the report a wake-up call that “the core business development activities of our established employers need as much attention and care and feeding as does that next generation of entrepreneur.”

The council, which is affiliated with the fund, recommended that the region “go big” on a few key sectors such as biosciences and energy. The panel conceded the points being made in the report, but denied that it means that economic development needs to disregard other emerging industries. Mayer and Whitehead explained that focusing on key sectors would not mean neglecting entrepreneurship in emerging industries.

Whitehead continued that “we’ve earned the right to go big” by investing in the infrastructure to create a leading region in biosciences. Whitehead recalled a conversation in the early days of the fund in which business leaders stated that it was too late for the region to break into the field.

While much of the discussion centered on knowledge-based industries, Amy Liu, noted that the region is more export-oriented than the nation as a whole. “More than 14 percent of . . . regional economy is driven by global trade. That means people are buying the products that are made in northeast Ohio.” Nationally that figure is 11 percent.


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