But he doesn’t start pretending to have all the right ideas.
“If (people) wanted to participate in economic development, but they don’t want to sit at this desk every day, here’s their chance. Go through the plan and give us some ideas,” Thomas said.
“There are probably more ideas out there and there could be some great ways to fit that into the plan. Give us your ideas,” he said.
“We want feedback, even if it’s, ‘Sounds good’ or ‘Hey, what about…’ People don’t need to have huge responses divinely inspired,” said Thomas.
A CEDS is required for programs funded by the Federal Economic Development Administration, including public works, economic adjustment assistance, the local technical assistance program, and the short-term planning program.
It’s the kind of plan that can create a flow of money for needed infrastructure like roads, water, sewage and electricity. It’s also the kind of plan that can be presented to businesses that may be looking to set up a facility in the area.
“(CEDS) is a tool used by the EDA that is key to triggering these funds. They don’t do a lot of economic development. They fund those of us who do. The thing that makes communities eligible for their funding traditionally has been CEDS,” Thomas said.
The four counties worked with the Center for Regional Development at Bowling Green State University in a process that began in January 2021.
The effort included more than 30 one-on-one interviews and more than 600 survey responses from residents across the four counties.
Members of the five-member CEDS Strategic Committee are Thomas; Aaron Pauly, economic development coordinator for Grow Ashland; Gary Frankhouse, director of economic development for the Crawford Partnership; Erin Stine, Director of Community Development for Crawford Partnership.
The group also worked with a community advisory committee, made up of more than 45 government officials and private industry representatives from the four counties.
This is the first time Richland County has been involved in such an effort since 2012.
That plan came after GM shut down in Ontario in 2010, a “lighter” effort, according to Thomas, that included major factory labor areas in Richland, Ashland, Crawford and Huron counties.
“We put together a study that helped us get funding for some projects. But it wasn’t really like (the current study). It’s on a much higher level. It’s a lot more in-depth. Frankly, I was really happy with how it turned out,” Thomas said.
Among other things, the 54-page study, largely funded by an EDA grant, examines the region’s perceived strengths and weaknesses.
Thomas said three of the biggest strengths are the US 30, market similarities, and cooperation.
“If a company is interested in being in Mansfield, they’re interested in that small-town experience, where if they come in with 500 jobs, you know they’re going to be a big fish in a small pond.
“They are interested in getting the attention of local communities, they would also be interested in Ashland, they would also be interested in Galion and Bucyrus and Upper Sandusky.
“So we’re more like Cleveland or Toledo or Columbus, so we thought that was a good way to market for companies that are looking for that experience,” Thomas said.
US 30 is key to the region’s success, said Thomas, a certified economic developer from Ohio who was named one of the top 50 economic developers in North America in 2019 by Consultant Connect.
“We based it on US 30 because it’s a huge underutilized asset. When you talk to the Department of Transportation, they rate freeways in terms of travel reliability, that is, say the percentage of time you can travel at or above the posted speed limit (US 30) has a travel reliability rating of 92 or 93 percent, which is the highest in the state,” Thomas said.
Thomas, he hopes that the locally developed marketing and development cooperation will end up in the four counties.
“I’m really, really proud of what we’ve built in Richland County (in terms of cooperation),” Thomas said.
“The collaboration that we have is really unusual. I get people from economic development who come from other places and they ask ‘Who manages this part and who manages this part?’
“I tell them they’re all different organisations, but don’t worry. We all work together. And they don’t believe me. But we really do. And we’re really effective.
“We do a lot of stuff and when they see it they’re all shocked that we didn’t lie because they think it all looks like marketing,” said Thomas, who earned a bachelor’s degree in business systems and an MBA from Taylor University.
The study also identifies perceived weaknesses in the four county region, including out-migration, an aging workforce, and inability to attract and retain young skilled workers; low entry salaries in many industries; inequitable broadband access; the lack of retail stores and restaurants in the area; and lack of investment in technology infrastructure, including automation by the private and public sectors.
He also pointed to a lack of political leadership and pipeline for future leaders; poor condition of US 30 coins; lack of affordable housing and updated housing stock in some parts of the region; lack of regional marketing and branding to attract and retain business and talent; the uneven perception and academic offerings of K-12 schools in some parts of the region; lack of population diversity in the region.
The study includes a vision statement that identifies the corridor as a “well-connected resource center with a forward-thinking and collaborative culture that is home to a growing skilled workforce, a diverse and competitive employment base and high-quality places that drive job creation, talent attraction and revenue generation.”
It also identifies six objectives:
— Take advantage of the region’s economic development assets to diversify and grow the employment base, particularly in high-paying occupations.
— continue to develop the region’s infrastructure to connect the region’s people, goods and services to the state, the nation and the world.
— fostering a forward-thinking, collaborative culture that embraces change and is willing to take risks to develop new sites, buildings and initiatives to improve the region’s economic future.
— build a resilient and vibrant workforce ecosystem that attracts and retains workers in the region, provides a diversity of cutting-edge training opportunities for residents, and aligns training and education programs with current needs and future employers.
— Develop a coordinated regional approach to expanding a diverse stock of housing options to enable more residents to take advantage of the region’s employment opportunities and high quality of life.
— continue to seek out new recreational, tourism, space-making and retail opportunities that enhance the quality of life for all area residents.
Thomas again stressed cooperation between leaders along the corridor.
“The thing we lead with is all of us economic developers, we’ll all work together. It’s made a difference. We’re working on all of this together.
“All of these goals, we’re all okay with all of this and how things are done. And we all want to see these things happen,” he said.