By all accounts, 2017 was an incredible year for Stark County. Plans progressed on the Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village, and it’s been exciting to watch the $750-million investment to develop the Pro Football Hall of Fame campus into a world-class asset and attraction unfold. Also in the last year, downtown redevelopment projects continued to advance in our major cities of Alliance, Canton and Massillon, and work to develop 327 acres in western Stark County into industrial sites began. These developments reflect a long-term perspective focused on Growth & Opportunity.

But perhaps most importantly, civic leaders from across the county came together in 2017 to advance a plan for our community to prevent us from becoming smaller, older and poorer. Leaders who had previously never worked with one another are now rallying around a call to “Strengthen Stark” and to ensure that our county’s future is a bright one.

It took a cold, hard look at some unsettling data and some nudging from the Fund for Our Economic Future to get us to this point. And though our economic outcomes in 2017 may not be where we want them to be, the fact that we have come together as a community and faced our collective reality openly and honestly is a huge step in the right direction. Our community-wide commitment to advancing an inclusive economy where all people have access to opportunities is to be commended. But we aren’t resting on our laurels just yet. The hard work is really just beginning.

As I take on the chairmanship of the Fund, I am struck by how our efforts of the last year in Stark County reflect the opportunity in front of the rest of the region. Growth & Opportunity is connecting in Cuyahoga County, Mahoning Valley, Lorain County, Summit County, Wayne County, and elsewhere. It is my hope that as the Fund’s chair, I can further bring to ground in local places our Fund’s regional priority to have a continuously regenerating economy creating good jobs and rising incomes for everyone. There are achievements we should feel good about, but we are nowhere close to reaching our full potential as a region.

Northeast Ohio faces real economic challenges. We are not innovating and investing to the level needed to drive competitiveness. We are leaving people behind and further widening the economic and racial divide. We have a choice in front of us: Do we want to be exclusive or inclusive? Average or extraordinary?  

I firmly believe that if we focus on connecting Growth with Opportunity through efforts to improve Job Creation, Job Preparation and Job Access, we can be both inclusive and extraordinary. It’s a formula we’re using in Stark County. People get it. And they are figuring out how to operationalize it.

No one organization or community can do this alone. The Fund is an excellent resource in this work; still, there must first be a recognition of the challenges before us, a coming together around this reality, and an active choice to see a better tomorrow.

Last week, my predecessor Brian Frederick challenged those who will steward the Fund in the future to “continue to be bold and use this remarkable vehicle as a transformative agent for the entire Northeast Ohio community.” Brian, and all of my colleagues at the Fund, consider this challenge accepted.