Making Change: Improving the Economy - What's the Answer?

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People who make Northeast Ohio's economy their business generally agree that it's improving - but not enough. Opinions diverge widely, though, in just what to do about the situation. That's in part because the question of what constitutes a good economic development strategy has a variety of answers.

Some folks set their sights on structural matters, like incentives to entice businesses to locate here; or training programs for entrepreneurs. Dan Berry is senior vice president of the Greater Cleveland Partnership. To help create a positive investment climate, Berry says, the Partnership lobbied hard in Columbus for the new tax code.

Dan Berry: We think the new tax code enacted by the legislature and signed by the governor will be a major incentive to more investment in job-creating innovation and technologies in the state.

Other efforts underway in the region, Berry says, are helping old-line manufacturers innovate, develop new products, and find new markets.

But economic development guru Ed Morrison says relationships are more important than specific programs or incentives. He says a strong economy requires that people bring their ideas to the table, share them, and, together, move them forward into action. Northeast Ohio, he says, sorely needs help in this area.

Ed Morrison: We don't have those networks here operating very strongly. We have a lot of great ideas. But nobody, no one individual, can take an idea to completion. They need a network of other people who can get engaged.

As head of REI, the Center for Regional Economic Issues at Case, Morrison spent the past two years trying to support this kind of engagement. Now, he's launched I-Open, the Institute for Open Economic Networks, which hosted its first public forum this week. But some folks want to see less talk, and more action. Thom Ruhe is one of them. He's chief marketing officer at JumpStart, which trains and supports entrepreneurs.

Thom Ruhe: Our experience is that oftentimes things aren't failing for lack of planning, they're failing for lack of execution. And again it comes down to the point, at some point we roll up our sleeves and we go get the work done that we've just spent the last 6 months talking about.

Morrison says there has been a fair amount of action - from a collaboration among a cluster of pioneering preventive health care companies to innovation in the digital arts. But, he says, one thing that continues to hold back progress is endless debate.

Ed Morrison: The debates keep cycling around the same topics: convention facilities, downtowns, airports. And (when) they keep cycling and cycling around, you've got a civic leadership that can't move the community past old an topic.

Of course, it could be that arguing is partly an excuse. After all, if we can all agree on something, we might actually have to do it, might have to step off that cliff and into the unknown. Ruhe says the region badly needs people willing to do this.

Thom Ruhe: Starting new endeavors, or taking risk, you know business risk, that's a good thing. And even failure can be a good thing. It means you're at least trying.

Entrepreneurship, according to the Partnership's Dan Berry, is, by definition, risky. The key, he says, is to support people, but not too much.

Dan Berry: Helping reduce as much as you can the risk without dampening the entrepreneurship, and then at the same time recognizing and rewarding those individuals in the community who do take that step. I think (it's) an important way to make sure a community has a pool of people willing step forward and try to start new ventures.

Morrison says it's a matter of asking lots of questions, and pushing past the answers.

Ed Morrison: What could we do to create wealth in our inner cities? How do we take advantage of the Internet? How do we take advantage of our libraries, which are extraordinary? How do we take advantage of our colleges and universities, and the new emerging collaborations that are coming out of our colleges and universities?

But even those not directly involved in answering these questions can make a difference. Dan Berry says it's vital to encourage entrepreneurship as a legitimate career path for children, and to honor the entrepreneurs among us. Ed Morrison says people need to show up at public discussions. Talk. Listen. And be sure not to leave it at that.

In Cleveland, Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.

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