As the Fund for Our Economic Future, its members and partners work to advance economic growth that benefits all people of Northeast Ohio—what is referred to as Growth & Opportunity—we must be ever mindful of our region’s geographic diversity. While most of Northeast Ohio’s economically distressed areas are concentrated in its core cities, issues of income inequality and economic polarization reach our rural areas as well.
Nearly half of Northeast Ohio’s 18 counties consist of small, rural areas, and roughly 20 percent of the region’s population lives in these non-metro areas. Ten of the 18 counties have neighborhoods of economic distress, where less than 65 percent of the working-age population is employed or looking for work and where median household income falls in the bottom quartile.
As a long-standing member of the Fund and active participant in many of the region’s economic development initiatives, Wayne County—along with its non-metro counterparts—is working hard to foster Growth & Opportunity for its residents. What we know, and what sometimes can get lost in the conversation, is the fact that a job created outside of a metro area does not necessarily come at the expense of a job in a metro area, or even at the detriment of metro area job seekers. Creating and retaining good-paying jobs that are accessible to the residents of our rural counties is as important as creating and retaining good-paying, accessible jobs for residents of metro areas—and offer the same benefits.
Businesses choose to locate and expand in an area based on unique criteria. Some companies that are a fit for a rural area (i.e., a dairy processing facility) are not necessarily a fit for a metro one. There are valid reasons for exploiting the comparative advantage of different parts of the region and each should be celebrated equally. Wayne County has gone to great lengths to retain its rural strengths and not become a destination for sprawl.
For instance, we have adopted an informal three-mile development zone policy that seeks to direct all new development within a three-mile radius of existing towns and villages. This protects farmland, which we view as the means of production—the “factory” so to speak—of our agricultural industry. While zoning does not prevent a company from moving outside of this defined zone, incentives such as the extension of water and sewer are not likely to be provided to those seeking to establish an operation outside of our development zone. It has a secondary effect of preserving one of the most important quality of life attributes of our county, i.e., plentiful open green space and farmland. Neither Wayne County nor our region’s urban cores benefit from unmanaged sprawl that only adds infrastructure, not economic growth or job growth to our region.
Rural areas have their own distinct issues related to lack of education, low income levels and access to jobs. Northeast Ohio’s rural areas are addressing these issues in collaborative ways. For instance, the Wayne Economic Development Council (WEDC) recently launched the Workforce Innovations Network comprised of educators, businesses, government, social service agencies and others to develop a talent pipeline for employers and to increase opportunities for individuals, including those with barriers to employment. This network also supports the alignment of workforce investment, social service, education, and economic development systems.
The WEDC also supports the efforts of the newly established Wayne County Transportation Coalition, which is working to develop mobility solutions that lead to increased job retention and stability for workers and employers. Rural areas suffer from the lack of public and private transportation options; we must improve the mobility of job seekers and low-wage earners if they are to be afforded the same shot at opportunity as others.
In recent years, the best performing parts of our region have been the non-metro areas. In particular, Wayne, Ashland and Tuscarawas counties were named among the Top Ten areas in the country for business growth in 2014 by Site Selection magazine. Growth in these rural areas is creating employment for workers in nearly every county across Northeast Ohio. As a region, we need to celebrate those successes and be careful not to portray these gains as somehow detrimental to the metro areas.
The success of Growth & Opportunity hinges on aligning and connecting local efforts like the ones happening in Wayne County to the regional economy, and sharing lessons with one another on what works and what matters to reduce the number of people living in economic distress across the entire region.