Focusing Better on Big Picture: Concept of Regionalism Grows on Local Leaders: Joe Frolik Plain Dealer/NEOMG February 12, 2006

ONLINE: Read more, including The Plain Dealer’s “A Region Divided,” on the Web.

It was Plato who first identified necessity as the mother of invention.

But if the Greek philosopher were to pop up in Cleveland these days, he just might conclude that necessity has another child: regionalism.

Not so long ago, regionalism was an orphan concept dismissed as — pick your poison — too vague, too idealistic or even too threatening to warrant serious discussion. Now, everyone’s talking about it. Consider:

The new mayor of Cleveland plans to hire a regional economic development director, who will be part deal maker, part visionary. He’s also cozying up to a group of suburban mayors and city managers who want to start a regional development fund and to replenish it by sharing tax revenue.

Meanwhile, it’s hard to find one of those suburban mayors who isn’t talking about some regional approach to everything from recreation to fire protection.

And the Cuyahoga County commissioners are quietly crafting a regional investment package that would address big capital needs, money for the arts and even brain drain.

For now, the commissioners and most of the mayors use region as a synonym for Cuyahoga County or a group of adjacent communities. But other conversations are exploding on an even bigger canvas.

Foundations from 15 counties are investing in a regional economic development initiative and want thousands of average folks to help plot Northeast Ohio’s future. Business organizations from Lorain to Youngstown created Team NEO to market the region and aid companies looking to move or expand here. Two-dozen local colleges and universities are co-

operating to sell students on this region as a great place to learn — and to live after graduation.

In part, these efforts reflect simple reality. Geographic regions are the defining units of commerce in the 21st century. To Adam Smith’s invisible hand, every community here — be it a big city like Cleveland or an exurban outpost like Burton — already feels connected.

“The marketplace sees the region and the marketplace is where we have to have impact,” says Joseph Roman, president of the Greater Cleveland Partnership. “And to do that, we have to use every available resource.”

Which gets us back to necessity. Although many of our companies excel, and many of us enjoy an enviable quality of life, this region overall has not kept pace with economic growth elsewhere. The result is the half-century of stagnation that we’ve come to call Greater Cleveland’s “Quiet Crisis.” And it touches almost every aspect of life.

The cost of government services keeps rising faster than property values or tax revenue. Citizens want those services, but are too concerned about their own economic prospects to accept higher taxes. As the region fails to generate enough new wealth, foreclosures and blight creep into affluent suburbs. Talented young people look elsewhere for opportunities. Old racial and class lines harden at a time when openness and diversity are more prized than ever.

If you’re a mayor or other elected official, you have to find ways to cut costs without eroding services, so you start thinking about sharing some burdens with your neighbors. Business leaders look for lower taxes and less red tape to become more competitive and create more jobs. Leaders of minority or inner-city communities realize that, unless the economy grows, their constituents will never reach their potential.

Thus the newfound interest in regionalism — not as an end to itself, but as a tool to fix what ails us.

“In some respects, this region doesn’t have a choice but to try something new,” says John Powell, director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. “Yes, it’s hard. Change is always hard. But keeping the status quo is harder.”

Powell’s very presence in the regionalism discussion reflects its new tone. He and two other nationally recognized African-American policy experts have been hired by the Presidents’ Council to examine what kinds of regional approaches have been tried elsewhere and what might work here, given Greater Cleveland’s history and culture. The council is comprised by leading black business owners who want to ensure that their community is not only at the table when regionalism is discussed, but ready to help set the agenda.

That’s significant, because until now most black leaders have viewed regionalism with skepticism, or even hostility. They would hear regionalism and figure it’s a code word for a government consolidation that would dilute black voting power and strip Cleveland of its assets. End of conversation.

Now, says the Presidents’ Council’s Lonzo Coleman, “It’s better for all of us to be at the table and have the right conversations.”

(It’s worth noting that many folks in outlying counties still hear regionalism and figure it’s a code word for siphoning their assets to Cleveland. But that’s another column).

Think of the change at City Hall in just five years: When Michael R. White was mayor of Cleveland, he dismissed regionalism talk by asking its proponents when they planned to pony up for the city’s public schools and public housing. Jane Campbell talked a more favorable game, but usually focused on what Cleveland needed from its neighbors.

Frank Jackson is the first mayor to speak in terms of partnership and mutual benefit — though he, too, is crystal clear that education needs to be seen as a regional responsibility. After all, how can this area compete if it relegates thousands of children every year to second-class schooling in a world where economic power and education go hand in glove?

Jackson remains vehemently against government consolidation, but so is almost everyone at this point. So why not look for areas of possible cooperation — shared services, purchasing, job attraction — rather than pick a huge fight that will lead nowhere?

When OfficeMax was deciding where to locate its merged corporate headquarters, Campbell and Shaker Heights Mayor Judy Rawson brought together 14 public and private entities and 22 funding sources to pitch Greater Cleveland. It still wasn’t enough, but it offered a glimpse of what has to happen in the future.

“Before, when somebody mentioned regionalism, it was, ‘How is my ox going to be gored with this new idea?’ ” says Rawson. “Now it’s, ‘Can we make the region stronger?’ And if so, ‘. . . Does it benefit my community?’ And the answer to those questions, increasingly, is yes.”


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