A bumpy road to regionalism by Jay Miller, Crain’s Cleveland Business 9/19/22

A bumpy road to regionalism
by Jay Miller, Crain’s Cleveland Business 9/19/22

“Regionalism sounds like a disease,” David Abbott, a retired former president of the Gund Foundation, told a group of law students at Case Western Reserve University in April. “I never really liked it for that reason, but also because it’s so hard to define and it’s even harder to apply in the real world.”

Despite his skepticism, Abbott and other civic leaders in Northeast Ohio — past and present — have been trying to think and plan beyond their traditional city and county borders for more than 100 years, not always successfully. The early efforts were focused on providing public services at a lower cost and evolved to include improving the environment, transportation systems, housing and the economy. More recently, civic leaders have been thinking more broadly about regional economies.

People may live in one city, send their children to school in another and work in another county a 60-minute drive away. As important, businesses looking to relocate or open a new operation focus on the infrastructure, available real estate and talent pool in that 60-minute radius.

In 1917, the Citizens League, a government watchdog group that lasted until 2004, proposed creating a metropolitan government for all of Cuyahoga County. At the time, only a few suburbs had been created out of the county’s townships — 85% of the county’s population still lived in the city of Cleveland — and the Citizens League believed a strong county government would lower taxes and improve services.

Similarly, Akron in 1929 annexed the city of Kenmore and the village of Ellet and was unsuccessful in bids to annex Barberton and Cuyahoga Falls before the Great Depression and a change in state law. The communities sought as merger partners typically feared higher taxes and the loss of local identity.

One reason thinking regionally might be making Abbott feel ill is that, for much of the 20th century, Northeast Ohio was not actually considered a region. Instead, it was five cities, and then five metropolitan areas — Akron, Canton, Cleveland, Elyria-Lorain and Youngstown — surrounded by small towns and farmland.

That statistical breaking of borders came about in 1949 when the U.S. Census Bureau created the “standard metropolitan area,” acknowledging that the automobile and its freeways and the expansion of economic activity into suburban areas had created interconnected communities beyond city and county borders.

That led to the creation of organizations such as metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) — which allocate federal transportation dollars — and regional councils of government, which perform a variety of services for member communities. Unlike most regions, Northeast Ohio has four MPOs — the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study, which serves Summit and Portage counties; the Eastgate Council of Governments, serving Mahoning and Trumbull counties; the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, which covers Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain and Medina counties; and Stark County Area Transportation Study serving Stark County.

Then came the recession of the early 1980s, when the cities of the Midwest’s Factory Belt turned to rust. Cleveland lost 12,000 manufacturing jobs, and Akron lost 10,000 jobs in its rubber and plastics industry. That led to steep declines in population. According to an analysis by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit research group, by 2007, Cleveland had lost 28.9% of its 1980 population while Akron lost 14.9%, Canton lost 26.4% and Youngstown 40.3%.

At first, after the recession, communities continued to focus on finding more local tax dollars. In Summit County, Akron pushed legislation through the state legislature in the early 1990s that allowed a city to join a development district with a township. The new structure was called a Joint Economic Development District, or JEDD. Since Ohio townships can’t levy income taxes, the JEDD allows the two communities to share the tax revenue on commercial development in the township.

Those consolidations of public services are still few and far between because many communities continue to see collaborations, where their name may be obscured by a bigger name community, as a loss of local identity and independence.

In 2002, regional business leaders, led by the late H. Peter Burg, then chairman and CEO of FirstEnergy Corp., began talking about creating a nonprofit that would bring together economic development efforts in Northeast Ohio. “The time for a more regional approach may have been right for some time, but we didn’t have the vehicle to drive it home,” Burg told Crain’s at the time. Rather than emphasize the virtues of particular cities or counties to businesses in and outside Northeast Ohio, Team NEO would sell as a single market the 13 counties in the new group. “Our focus is to find what companies need and then find where in the region that need can be met,” Burg said.

Among the groups that helped shape and fund the new organization, which opened shop in January 2003, were the Greater Akron Chamber, the Greater Cleveland Growth Association, the Lorain County Chamber of Commerce, the Stark Development Board and the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber. The 13 counties in the region were Ashtabula, Columbiana, Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain, Mahoning, Medina, Portage, Stark, Summit, Trumbull and Wayne.

Team NEO focused only on attracting businesses to the region, leaving local chambers of commerce and public development agencies to help existing businesses in their areas expand. But it didn’t work out as planned, Crain’s reported in 2011, as public officials and local economic development organizations resisted giving up their role as leaders for their communities’ business attraction. “It was passive aggressiveness done in a beautiful fashion,” Ned Hill, dean of the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University at the time, said recently.

About the same time, in 2004, a group of 28 philanthropies and businesses committed $30 million to create a nonprofit, the Fund for Our Economic Future, to build stronger ties between the shrinking cities and the region, and to shake off the rust. “We’ve been individual cities, competitive with each other, very parochial, and that doesn’t sell in the 21st century,” said Robert Briggs, then president of the GAR Foundation in Akron. Specifically, the Fund began with aspirations to be the place where regional economic strategy — looking at issues such as stimulating entrepreneurship and improving transportation links and higher education — was hashed out. But that didn’t pan out.

“I think when the Fund first got started, it was trying to be the keeper of the regional strategy with a portfolio of economic development (projects), but it was just too unwieldy,” said Brad Whitehead, who served as the Fund’s president from its founding in 2004 until 2020 and is now a senior adviser. “We have thriving sector partnerships (in areas such as manufacturing) that are sub-regional but there’s not an (overall) strategy.”

However, the Fund has built a strong reputation for its work in building the skills of job seekers and connecting them with well-paid, in-demand jobs. And though it considers itself a regional organization, current Fund president Bethia Burke considers its partners on workforce issues to be local organizations.

“Workforce services aren’t delivered regionally, nor I don’t think they should they be,” she said. “But what I think has been useful is we share (ideas on) what makes local workforce delivery better.”

In 2011, Team NEO was able to firmly establish itself as the principal manager of economic development in Northeast Ohio. Then Gov. John Kasich created JobsOhio, his vehicle for channeling state incentives to induce businesses to invest in Ohio. JobsOhio then sought existing regional organizations to be its partner around the state. It chose Team NEO to oversee economic development for 18 counties, only slightly more than was planned for the original Team NEO. The added counties were Ashland, Erie, Huron, Richland and Tuscarawas.

“Companies choose to invest in Northeast Ohio because of the critical mass that exists within the 18 counties — an integrated supply chain, 7,700 manufacturing companies, 25 higher education institutions and a $240 billion economy,” said William Koehler, Team NEO’s president since 2015. “The question then is: How do we take advantage of the focus people have and their desire to invest in (their) communities, while also challenging them to lift up their eyes and recognize there are some things that are better-off if they’re leveraged regionally?”

Team NEO gained clout among the region’s mayors and economic development professionals because, as one of JobsOhio’s six regional partners, it would hold the strings on the $100 million business-attraction purse that Kasich was creating from state liquor profits to invest in business attraction and job creation. So most, but not all, local officials applauded the move.

Bob Bowman, then deputy mayor of Akron for economic development, didn’t jump on the bandwagon, not understanding how a nonprofit organization could put together the kinds of deals he was doing. “I don’t know how somebody from the private sector puts together a public deal,” he told Crain’s, conceding that politicians would be unhappy not being the center of deals. “Who gets the credit? The state always wants credit, and now the region will want credit, which was not involved until now, and there’s also the local level and all the people in between.”

Northeast Ohio, like much of the Rust Belt, continues to lag the national economy. But observers are optimistic that with Team NEO playing its regional role, the region and its communities are making headway.

Ward J. Timken Jr., former chairman, CEO and president of North Canton’s TimkenSteel and a member of the Team NEO board of directors, believes the region’s civic leaders, who he calls “leados,” and Team NEO are meshing well.

“I think all of the leados that I have been involved with through Team NEO are doing a great job,” he said, noting that many of the key regional organizations have gone through leadership changes in the last few years. “I think they’re cooperating, which is really, really important. Everybody is rowing in the same direction right now, which is great.”

Another civic leader who did not want to be named said he is more skeptical that the region is working well together, but he is hopeful.

“I’ve watched for years as the chambers have just stuck their middle fingers up at Team NEO, because as much as they need Team NEO, Team NEO needs them,” he said. “But it looks like (Bill Koehler’s) got them working together.”

Regionalism in Northeast Ohio-Material on the Subject From the Past 10+ Years


Proposed Revised Cuyahoga County Map 2012 (NEOMG)

Regionalism in Northeast Ohio-Material on the Subject from the Past 10+ Years

History of Cuyahoga County Government

From the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History (1810-2011)

History of Northeast Ohio Regional Government

From the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History (thru 2009)

Reports from the Plain Dealer

A Region Divided – Plain Dealer Report (2004) (currently unavailable)

A Region Uniting – Plain Dealer Report (2007) (currently unavailable)

Cleveland.com brought back some links in the above series here


A New Cleveland Without Borders Plain Dealer/NEOMG January 25, 2004

What’s Stalling Regionalism is Rampant Self-Interest on All Parts Cleveland Scene May 26, 2004

Regionalism in Louisville Working, But Black Political Power Dwindles Plain Dealer/NEOMG August 26, 2007

You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide Cleveland Magazine September 2007

New Ohio House Speaker, Armond Budish, Vows to Push For Cities; Regionalism Plain Dealer January 5, 2009

How Cuyahoga County Reform Effort Turned Into Political Turmoil Plain Dealer/NEOMG September 13, 2009

Mayor Jackson was Re-Elected, But Will He Lose Power to the County Executive? Plain Dealer/NEOMG November 08, 2009

County Government Reform is Likely to Happen in Stages Plain Dealer/NEOMG November 9, 2009

Cuyahoga County Pushes Regional Health Plans Plain Dealer/NEOMG March 30, 2010

Ed FitzGerald Stirs Regionalism Talk in Cuyahoga County Executive Race Plain Dealer/NEOMG April 21, 2010

Threats to Town Halls Stir Voter Backlash Wall Street Journal June 8, 2011

Cuyahoga County Offers Services in Pursuit of Regionalism Plain Dealer/NEOMG June 2, 2012

Cleveland Suburbs Let Regionalism Enter Through the “Back Door” Plain Dealer/NEOMG October 9, 2013

Four East Side Suburbs in Cuyahoga County to Study Merger Plain Dealer/NEOMG June 22, 2011

Merger For East Side Suburbs Off the Table For Now Plain Dealer/NEOMG July 17, 2013

Mergers Among Northeast Ohio Communities Unlikely, Despite All the Talk and Collaboration Plain Dealer/NEOMG April 29, 2014

Northeast Ohio Leads the State in Landing Loans and Grants For Shared Government Services Plain Dealer/NEOMG April 29, 2014

Promoting Regionalism. Can Communities Save Through Collaboration? Cleveland.com 8/18/16

Pooling community services, sharing taxes key for Greater Cleveland’s viability, panel says Cleveland.com 8/19/2016

5 problems facing Cuyahoga County and how regionalism can address them Cleveland.com 11/15/2016

Cuyahoga County’s high taxes prompt discussion about consolidation Cleveland.com 4.22.19

Indianapolis surged under “Unigov,” while Cleveland just clunked along: Cleveland 2030, A Way Forward, Cleveland.com 7.8.19

What might be different today if Cleveland and Cuyahoga County had merged decades ago? 7.12.19

Economic woes spawned by coronavirus crisis resurrecting talk of
mergers, regional cooperation 5.4.2020


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

The Ripening of Regionalism: Editorial Plain Dealer/NEOMG April 29, 2007 (currently unavailable)

Chris Ronayne Calls For Metro Government Cleveland Magazine April 2009

It’s Time For the 59 Jurisdictions That Comprise Cuyahoga County to Committ to a New Principle of Government: Thomas Bier Plain Dealer/NEOMG June 18, 2011

Consolidation Question Should Be Uppermost of Voters’ Minds: Joe Frolik Plain Dealer/NEOMG June 19, 2011

Redraw Cuyahoga County to Erase Duplication and Save Money: Joe Frolik Plain Dealer/NEOMG August 18, 2012

A Smarter Cuyahoga County Takes Shape Under the Crayons of Amateur Mapmakers: Joe Frolik Plain Dealer/NEOMG September 15, 2012

A Continuing Conversation of Regionalism: a Complex Topic Without a Central Thesis WestLife April 27, 2013

The More We — as in Small Municipalities — Get Together, the Happier We’ll Be: Brent Larkin Plain Dealer/NEOMG August 13, 2013

Use Cleveland-East Cleveland Merger to Build a Regional Approach to Problem-Solving: Brent Larkin Plain Dealer/NEOMG December 21, 2013

Regionalism is a Sensible Alternative to Raising Local Taxes: Editorial Plain Dealer/NEOMG August 22, 2014

What Population Loss is Costing Cleveland — and Why It Matters: Brent Larkin Plain Dealer/NEOMG June 19, 2014

A Tale of 273 Cities: Jason Segedy April 14, 2014

Regionalism in Parma, Parma Heights and Brooklyn – – Bland Word, Intelligent Concept:editorial April 20, 2015 Plain Dealer/NEOMG


Northeast Ohio Regionalism Forum w/Armond Budish, Cuyahoga County Executive and Eddy Kraus, Dir. of Regional Cooperation, Cuyahoga County June 17, 2015

Cuyahoga County: Past, Present and Future Growth. Lecture by Thomas Bier, Cleveland State University May 17, 2012

Dave Abbott, Executive Director of the Gund Foundation, on Regionalism in Northeast Ohio (Video) City Club April 24, 2014

Here Are 4 Interesting Thoughts on Regionalism From Gund Foundation’s Dave Abbott Plain Dealer/NEOMG April 25, 2014

“Regionalism and Shaker Heights” Aug 18, 2016 Issues facing almost all of Northeast Ohio’s suburbs

“Regionalism and the West Shore Communities” forum Nov 14, 2016. Panel discussed current initiatives in the delivery of services in Cuyahoga County. They explored possibilities for future cooperation and responded to audience comments and questions.  

Policy Report

“Cuyahoga County Government: A Blueprint for the Future” Citizens Committe for County Government Reform April 30, 1996

“Cuyahoga County Government Reform: A Means for Jobs and Economic Development?” Collaboration by Cleveland Bar Association, Cleveland State University and League of Women Voters-Cuy Area June 8, 2004

“Regionalism: Growing Together to Expand Opportunity to All” Kirwan Institute: The African American Forum on Race and Regionalism 2005

Northeast Ohio Regional Economic Revenue Study February 2008  (website)

Report of the Commission on Cuyahoga County Government Reform November, 2008

Doctoral Dissertation

“Regionalization of Cleveland’s Municipal Services 1950-1977: The Process and the Politics” by Mary Babcock Stavish 1994

Policy Proposal on Regionalism From County Executive Ed FitzGerald

Policy Proposal from Edward FitzGerald: Director of Regional Collaboration (2010)



Read The Plain Dealer’s original 2004 series on how Cuyahoga County and its surrounding communities might benefit from consolidating governments and city services
Part 1: Is there a better way?

  • • A new Cleveland without borders?
  • • PD’s Doug Clifton: Regional government deserves exploration
  • • Five models of regional government
  • • Regional cooperation in Greater Cleveland goes back a long way
  • • Chart: Should two cities become one
  • Part 2: Burning questions
  • • One big fire department?
  • • Fighting fires before they start
  • • Fire department consolidations
  • • Chart: What’s it cost to fight fires?
  • • Boots and ladders
  • • PDF: Where’s the fire [station]?
  • Part 3: An Issue of black and white
  • • Reframing the debate
  • • The meaning of influence
  • • Chart: Blacks in Cuyahoga County
  • • Chart: Government reform
  • Part 4: Joining forces
  • • CSI Cuyahoga County?
  • • One county, 47 city jails• Chart: All dressed up and ready for ‘GO!’• Chart: Mixed signals
  • Part 5: The Minneapolis plan
    • What if we shared the wealth?• Chart: Regional comparison• Chart: South St. Paul by the number• Chart: What if Northeast Ohio shared?
  • Part 6: New math for schools
    • Could 31 districts ever equal 1?• Chart: Big districts spend less
  • • Chart: Separate and unequal schools
  • Part 7: New math for schools II
    • In schooling math, more can be less• Chart: School consolidation hot spots
  • Part 8: Disorder in the courts
  • • Verdict: inefficient and fragmented
  • • PD’s Doug Clifton: Challenges remian as we face the future in NE Ohio
  • • Chart: Caseload burdens
  • • Chart: Legal maze for Cuyahoga families
  • Part 9: Disorder in the courts II
  • • On DUIs, justice is all over the map
  • • Chart: Different Courts, different results
  • • Chart: Which courts stike the most deals with drunken drivers?
  • Part 10: Playing Together
  • • Sharing the cost of a big rec center
  • • Chart: Fit to compete
  • Part 11: Degrees of Cooperation
  • • Colleges consider pooling resources
  • • Chart: Public colleges and universities in Ohio, US
  • • Chart: Colleges nearby for Northeast Ohioans
  • • Chart: Degree overlap
  • A new Cleveland without borders?

    Sunday, January 25, 2004

    By Robert L. Smith

    Plain Dealer Reporter

    Corrections and clarifications: The following published correction appeared on January 29, 2004:Because of a reporter’s error, a story on Sunday’s Page One incorrectly ranked the population of Louisville, Ky. Upon merging with its home county last January, Louisville became America’s 16th most populous city.


    A REGION DIVIDED / Is there a better way?

    Welcome to the city of Metro Cleveland. We’re new, but we suspect you’ve heard of us.

    We’re the largest city in Ohio, by far. With 1.3 million residents, we’re the sixth-largest city in America. Right back in the Top 10.

    Our freshly consolidated city covers 459 square miles on the Lake Erie shore. Our economic development authority, enriched through regional cooperation, wields the power to borrow a whopping $500 million.

    So, yes, America, we have a few plans.

    How do you like us now?

    Merging Cleveland and Cuyahoga County into a single super-city is only one example of “new regionalism” being discussed across the country. In fact, it illustrates one of the most aggressive and seldom-used strategies to revive a metropolitan area by eliminating duplicated services, sharing tax dollars across political boundaries and planning with a regional view.

    At the other end of the spectrum stand places like present-day Cleveland, a tired city with rigid boundaries watching helplessly as its wealth and jobs drain away.

    In between are dozens of regions where city and suburbs agreed to plan new industries, or began sharing taxes, or staked out “green lines” to slow sprawl and encourage investment in urban areas, cooperative strategies aimed at lifting the whole region.

    Some dreams came true and others did not. Regional government does not solve every problem or achieve overnight success, experts caution. But the evidence suggests it allows cities like Cleveland to do something not dared here in a long time. It allows them to dream.

    Dream big.

    “Regional government would let Cleveland compete in the new economy,” said Bruce Katz, a specialist in metropolitan planning for the Brookings Institution.

    “Overnight, we’d become a national player,” said Mark Rosentraub, dean of the College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University.

    “These ideas are not crazy,” insists Myron Orfield, a Minnesota state senator and one of the nation’s best-known proponents of regional planning. “Regionalism is centrist. It’s happening. Ohio is one of the few industrialized states that has not done anything.”

    Orfield is often credited with popularizing new regionalism through his 1997 book, “Metropolitics.” It details regional partnerships he fostered in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, strategies like tax sharing.

    In 1969, the seven counties surrounding the Twin Cities began sharing taxes from new business and industry, pooling the money and giving it to the communities that needed it most.

    Designed to revive the cities, the plan worked so well that Minneapolis now sends taxes to its suburbs.

    (SEE CORRECTION NOTE) These days, a newer model of regionalism is drawing policy planners and mayors to northern Kentucky. Louisville merged with its home county last year to form the Louisville/Jefferson County Metro Government, becoming America’s 23rd-largest city as Cleveland slipped to 34th.

    Much of the messy work of merging city and county departments remains, but Louisville Mayor Jerry E. Abramson said his community is already enjoying cost savings and something more: rising self-esteem.

    Louisville residents had brooded as civic rivals Nashville and Indianapolis used regional cooperation to lure jobs, people and major-league sports teams. Fearful of being left forever behind, voters approved a dramatic merger that had been rejected twice before.

    “I think people saw that those cities were moving ahead more quickly,” Abramson said. “We decided we would do better speaking with one voice for economic growth.”

    History suggests such unity would not come easy to Northeast Ohio. Look at a detailed map of Ohio’s most populous county, Cuyahoga, and you’ll see a kaleidoscope of governments: one county, 38 cities, 19 villages, two townships, 33 school districts, and dozens of single-minded taxing authorities.

    The idea of huddling them behind a single quarterback is not new. At least six times since 1917, voters rejected plans for regional government, spurning the most recent reform plan in 1980.

    “You know why? People like small-town atmosphere,” said Faith Corrigan, a Willoughby historian who raised her family in Cleveland Heights. “It’s been said Cleveland is the largest collection of small towns in the world.”

    Any effort at civic consensus in Northeast Ohio also means bridging a racial divide, which helped to defeat the last three reform efforts. Black civic leaders suspected a larger, whiter city would dilute their hard-won influence and political power. Those sentiments remain.

    “Yes, we’re fearful of less representation,” said Sabra Pierce Scott, a Cleveland City councilwoman who represents the Glenville neighborhood, which is mostly black. “It’s taken us a long time to get here.”

    Meanwhile, residents of wealthy suburbs may see little to gain by sharing taxes with Cleveland, let alone giving up the village council.

    “I think it’s almost a fool’s dream to think you could even accomplish it,” said Medina County Commissioner Steve Hambley.

    Yet opposition to regional government is softening. Recently, Urban League director Myron Robinson told his board members that regional cooperation could give black children access to better schools and should be discussed.

    Mayors of older suburbs, facing their own budget woes, are questioning the wisdom of paying for services that might be efficiently shared, like fire protection and trash collection.

    And Cleveland business leaders, many of whom live in the suburbs, are emerging as some of the strongest supporters of regional sharing and planning. They say a strong city is essential to the region’s prosperity and that Cleveland cannot rise alone.

    For models of what might work, they look to any one of a dozen metropolitan areas that forged regional partnerships in recent decades; and to a few impassioned local believers.

    “If I were God for a day,” CSU’s Rosentraub declares, he would simply merge the city and county bonding powers behind a planning agency with teeth. He would create a $500 million revolving development fund, big enough to launch the kinds of projects that change skylines.

    That kind of cooperation, Rosentraub said, would also send a message across the land. We’re big. We’re regional. We’re working together.

    To comment on regional government or this story:

    theregion@plaind.com, 216-999-5068

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