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Envisioning a Better Tomorrow for Northeast Ohio: A Call to Action

Average vs. extraordinary.
Poverty vs. economic growth.
Racial disparity vs. opportunity for all.

The Fund for Our Economic Future, in The Two Tomorrows report released earlier this year, makes the case for the brighter of these potential futures — advocating for a collaborative mindset that fosters growth and opportunity for all, within the framework of job creation, job preparation and job access.

It’s intended to be a call to action—essentially a North Star that others can follow when setting priorities for their organizations and their communities.

Brad Whitehead, president of the Fund for Our Economic Future, along with Bethia Burke, the Fund’s vice president, recently discussed with Crain Content Studio-Cleveland The Two Tomorrows report, its intention and its goals.

A CALL TO ACTION

One of the differentiators between The Two Tomorrows and other reports and studies, is that it is not intended to be a directive or universal strategy.

Calling The Two Tomorrows report a “starting-point document,” Whitehead stressed that its intention is to be a rallying cry of sorts, with themes that can be incorporated into the work of other civic and economic development organizations.

The Fund itself is a membership organization, consisting of foundations, educational institutions, business and civic associations, corporations, and government entities from throughout the 18-county Northeast Ohio region that “pool their resources, networks and collective know-how to strengthen and sustain the regional economy in ways that also increase access to opportunity for all people.”

“The idea of a single, top-down plan is neither desirable, nor achievable,” Whitehead said.

THE HIGHLIGHTS

Burke, who served as the primary author in collaboration with her Fund colleagues, said the motivation for the report stemmed in part from “the need to be more direct about the long-term systemic issues that are undermining success for many people.”

Even at 98 pages, its underlying themes of growth and opportunity through job creation, job preparation and job access easily fall into 10 priorities for the region:

  • Deliver world-class business development services
  • Own the future of the production economy
  • Go big(ger) in the bioscience industry
  • Commit to the next new industry cluster(s)
  • Encourage and fuel entrepreneurship of all types
  • Build skills for well-paying, in-demand jobs of today and tomorrow
  • Improve job quality through efforts to raise the floor and build pathways to advancement
  • Reduce barriers to employment
  • Bring jobs to people
  • Better connect people to jobs

“We should have an out-loud conversation,” said Whitehead, noting that this is the first time since the Fund’s 2004 inception that “we have put a stake out there ourselves.”

‘ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM’

A notable feature of The Two Tomorrows is its very explicit call to action related to racial inclusion.

Burke said the intent was to point out the issue directly, “so the systems that promote racial exclusion can be addressed.”

And, as the region works to determine its next best course—whether it’s a focus on cybersecurity, bioscience, Blockland, water, additive manufacturing, or the Internet of Things—Whitehead stressed that leaders have to “build in the question of inclusion from the beginning.”

MEASURING UP

Burke said when you look at the traditional top-line measures of an economy—jobs, payroll and capital—there has been some growth since the Great Recession.

But, when you analyze the data differently and look at performance versus peers, “the reality is we aren’t creating opportunity equally if you take into consideration the quality and location of the jobs we’re creating,” she said. “And our growth is lagging that of peer cities. All of these factors make us less competitive overall.”

To that end, another outcome of The Two Tomorrows is the creation of a scorecard that redefines success.

It outlines eight metrics that aim to assess whether the region’s economy is continuously regenerating, and creating good jobs and opportunity in an equitable way.

GREATEST HURDLES

“There’s a natural tendency to rush to tactical, narrow solutions that can be readily implemented,” Burke noted. But, she said, that can limit the understanding of the comprehensive nature of the problem.

For his part, Whitehead referenced Albert Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

How does that sentiment relate to Northeast Ohio and strategies for the future? Work must be done within the larger context, rather than as an individual initiative that could get “swept away.”

The Two Tomorrows, Burke said, can serve as a framework to “influence and inform” other regional strategies.

THE REACTION?

Initially, Whitehead said, “there was a ho-hum, not another study” reaction.

But, since The Two Tomorrows’ initial unveiling at the beginning of 2018, the community conversation has shifted with a greater focus on leadership and what the future may hold. 

“It feels like our community has awakened,” Whitehead said. “It’s great to see engagement on our future … from disparate and diverse voices.”

FUTURE OUTLOOK

So, what is the brightest possible tomorrow for the region?

Whitehead put it quite simply: “An economy that’s regenerating itself that everyone is participating in.”

ENVISIONING A BETTER TOMORROW SERIES

In partnership with Crain Content Studio-Cleveland, the Fund for Our Economic Future will illustrate through a series of custom reports over the next five months the positive momentum, benchmarks and work yet to be done as it relates to The Two Tomorrows report.

All of the content will be available at CrainsCleveland.com/TwoTomorrows. New stories will be available the second Monday of each month through March, as well as on April 15.