Economic development is a 'long game,' Richland County commissioners told Tuesday

Click Here to view the original story published by Richland Source.

MANSFIELD -- Barrett Thomas cited a list of recent successes during a meeting Tuesday with Richland County commissioners.

But Thomas, economic development director for the Richland Area Chamber & Economic Development, knows tomorrow is always the key in landing the next big victory.

"This is such a 'long game.' I mean, everything we do is on super long timelines," Barrett said during a bi-annual meeting with commissioners.

Chamber officials provided updates to county commissioners, who pay $100,000 annually to the chamber and its Richland Community Development Group arm for economic development work done on behalf of the county.

Most of the meeting dealt with recent economic development successes, including what Thomas described as six "project wins" that have led to 41 new jobs, $2.1 million in new local payroll and $6.4 million in new capital expenditures.

His response about the "long game" came from a media question regarding how difficult it is to remain optimistic and not lose patience in the economic development game even as the impacts of the Intel groundbreaking last year in Licking County are now beginning to be felt locally.

Intel, the California-based semiconductor chip manufacturing company broke ground last fall on a new, $20 billion campus at a site just more than an hour away from Richland County.

One of the biggest local impacts has been a $10 million expansion project for Lloyd Rebar in Shelby, which has earned a share of the Intel construction project, aided by an enterprise zone agreement with the City of Shelby.

"For me, I drive by Lloyd Rebar and see the giant building going up and seeing how they've been affected and it's very real," said Jessica Gribben, economic development manager to the City of Shelby and northern Richland County.

She said Lloyd Rebar will likely double its workforce in the next three to five years, adding the Intel contract will move the company into a new class.

"There was some question, I guess (that the expansion) is tied to one project and what happens when that project is finished.

"They basically said, once you're in that kind of class of work, that's now where you stay -- you've kind of built that reputation for yourself. So the expansion is for one project specifically, they now are able to compete in that field," Gribben said.

"I like to say that Shelby outpunches its weight class (in economic development)."

Jodie Perry, chief operating officer for the chamber, said the actual construction work going on near Johnstown has alleviated some fears the giant economic development project may not materialize.

"The fact that they're moving dirt down there now, too, I think just from a statewide perspective has maybe alleviated a lot of fears that this would be something that doesn't move forward," Perry said.

Local officials are still benefitting from a 2022 mid-year visit from SiteOhio officials, which provided the kind of scoring evaluation they seldom receive from prospective companies that may consider Richland County for development.

Thomas, who said the chamber had responded 21 times in the last several months to companies expressing interest, said the SiteOhio visit has helped narrow of the focus of those responses.

"I think we understand our sites from the perspective of a site selector now," Thomas said. "We are responding to business attraction efforts in a way that fits that more accurately.

"(We are) targeting our effort more effectively and working a variety of paths to figure out how we can get site control so we can move some of those forward. We're getting pickier and pickier about what we respond to because there's so many opportunities," he said.

"A lot of them are in the electric vehicle space, a lot of them in batteries and, (computer) chip supply chain. So we're kind of picking the ones that really do fit here and we're responding to those. This number of 21 in six months is higher than what we were doing last year," Thomas said.

For 2022, chamber officials reported nine "closed projects" that amounted to commitments of 353 new jobs with an annual payroll of almost $14.2 million. Many of those jobs were tied to an expansion by Charter Next Generation.

Commissioner Cliff Mears said he did quick math and calculated that the 41 new jobs in 2023 had average pay of $51,200 annually.

"That's pretty reasonable," he said.

Gribben said officials were seeing smaller job numbers locally through expansion, but said companies are "working smarter" through automation and improving the skills of employees.

"We are seeing high-wage, high-skill (jobs) as opposed to a whole bunch of entry levels," she said. 

"I think we're pleased with, even though it's 41 jobs, as Cliff indicated with the payroll numbers, we're seeing the kind of jobs that we want to see as opposed to a giant number, which we maybe can't fill, of entry level jobs," Gribben said.

A key to that is training workers for the new jobs, according to Clint Knight, the chamber's workforce development director.

"One of our initial goals was to increase the amount of money that we were channeling to our businesses for upskilling their employees or bringing on new employees through the form of on-the-job training dollars," Knight said.

"We've increased that by 90 percent in the last six months. We've used $100,000 just on incumbent worker training and on-the-job training," said Knight, who oversees the Area 10 Workforce Development Board that includes Richland and Crawford counties.

"It is utilizing funds to upscale workers that are in the building and also subsidizing the payroll of new, higher employees that are coming on to the tune of about 50 percent of their wages.

"That is an opportunity we're looking to spread the word more about. We want our employers to know what's available to them," Knight said.

Perry told commissioners a formal announcement is coming next week noting the local workforce development effort is the only one in Ohio selected for a national tech grant.

"It is really going help us to do more workforce development work around technology and upskilling there. You'll hear a lot more about that soon. But the heart of that whole grant-writing process was the partnerships and the collaboration that we have. I think that's what made us stand out on that," Perry said.

Another key to future success is marketing current success, according to Sandy Messner, marketing and communications director for the chamber.

She highlighted the Richland Works project that has created videos for 35 local companies that are being used on websites, social media platforms, job fairs and recruitment materials.

Messner said it's one one of the projects that helped the chamber be selected as the Outstanding Chamber of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce Executives of Ohio and become a finalist for the national Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives Chamber of the Year award.