Ashtabula County is the northeastern-most county in the state of Ohio and traces its origins to 1808. The county, which is named for the Iroquoian word for ‘river of many fish’, is famous for having eighteen covered bridges – the largest number of covered bridges in Ohio – and twenty-one award-winning wineries.
Since it was established in 1990, the Growth Partnership for Ashtabula County has worked with both public and private groups in building economic prosperity and an improved quality of life for all residents of Ashtabula County.
When he was recruited as chief executive officer and executive director at the Growth Partnership for Ashtabula County two years ago, Don Iannone brought almost forty years of knowledge in the field of economic development. Iannone has worked in thirty-one states and several countries over the decades; led his own economic development consultancy company; and worked with dozens of clients including the Tucson and Phoenix regions in Arizona, Charlotte, North Carolina, the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, and the Northwest Pennsylvania region.
“I’m here to set the stage for transformational change in the county’s economic base in the future,” says Iannone. “I decided to accept the job because it represented the type of career capstone challenge that I was looking for. It’s a county that needs a lot of the things I have to offer, and it provides me with an opportunity to creatively use my skills and knowledge of forty years.”
Iannone is skilled in economic development, business development public sector innovation, and regional planning. He is also an avid photographer. His extensive knowledge of the social sciences, organizational behavior, and economic development makes him ideal to serve the present goals and future vision of Ashtabula County.
Iannone and his team of two full-time staff, two consultants and, in a recent initiative, two college interns are focused on helping existing businesses expand and attracting new companies to the area.
The county encompasses the cities of Ashtabula, Conneaut and Geneva as well as villages, townships, census-designated places and unincorporated communities along Lake Erie’s shoreline. In this area known for its scenery and its many parks, grapes are a popular crop resulting in several wineries.
Ashtabula County is a business hub that contains emerging and established industries such as advanced manufacturing, chemical, plastics, rubber and fiber glass composites.
The founder of respected local company Molded Fiber Glass Companies (MFG), Robert Morrison, is widely recognized as one of the pioneers of the industry. It was he who persuaded General Motors to make the Chevrolet Corvette the first production car created with a molded, fiber glass-reinforced, plastic body instead of steel in 1953. Today, MFG remains widely known for its expertise, manufacturing practices and innovation in automotive, construction, electrical, HVAC, military and defense, rail transportation and wind power.
“We have a long history of manufacturing entrepreneurship in the county,” comments Iannone.
The area is home to companies such as Chromaflo Technologies, which has a worldwide presence as one of the largest independent suppliers of colorant systems, and chemical and pigment dispersions to the thermoset composites, architecture, and industrial coatings industries.
Technology-oriented agribusiness Aloterra is at the forefront of transforming perennial crops into sustainable finished goods. One crop example is miscanthus, a drought-resistant grass that can be used as crop coverings, livestock bedding or processed into biofuels such as ethanol.
With its access to major highways, rail and water, Ashtabula County meets the logistics needs of companies from major manufacturers to agriculturally-based businesses of any size.
To make accessing data easier and more convenient for both existing companies and businesses wishing to relocate to the area, Growth Partnership recently launched the Ashtabula County Economic and Community Dashboard that provides timely factual information on the local economy, business and industry, workforce, and community demographics.
The organization also publishes the Ashtabula County Development Forum blog. The blog is an information resource to strengthen the county’s capacity for economic and community development and is updated four to five times per week. It contains about four hundred articles to date, and readers can search it for information on a range of topics including manufacturing and downtown revitalization.
“The blog is a service particularly to our business and community stakeholders that want to get a broader view of the issues that we are concerned with in the county,” says Iannone. “And the dashboard is a data analytic tool to build collective impact in the county. It is to move from organizations working a shotgun way to organizations in the county and with our regional partners – working to increase our collective impact on key priorities.”
The Growth Partnership for Ashtabula County takes a highly data-driven approach to economic development, and so it has formed a manufacturers’ alliance. The alliance is currently developing a series of initiatives that are designed to strengthen local manufacturers’ ability to compete.
After talking to manufacturers and businesses, the county determined that one of the priority issues was workforce development. As a result, Ashtabula County has created and fostered a consortium-based approach to training. One immediate concern was the lack of industrial maintenance workers, and to tackle this shortfall, eighteen manufacturers in the county worked with A-tech, the Ashtabula County Technical and Career Campus, to create the industrial maintenance training program.
Developed in partnership with others in the educational, civic and governmental community, A-tech works to provide unique and innovative personalized education and training opportunities within the framework of a supportive environment. Presently, it offers twenty, two-year programs for high school students and adults. The Growth Partnership and A-tech are currently exploring the creation of a new training program focused on the plastics and rubber industries with an introduction to thermoset plastics.
The unique SPIRE Institute in Geneva, Ohio presents a tremendous attraction that draws people to the county. It integrates sports with education, learning and training. The SPIRE Institute is one of the biggest indoor multi-sport training and competition facilities of its kind in the world with 750,000 square feet under roof and many acres of outdoor facilities. In 2013, the institute was officially designated a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Site, making it one of only a few sites across the nation to have Olympic-caliber training facilities.
“This designation by the U.S. Olympic Committee will bring significant economic activity to northeast Ohio and further strengthens our region as one of the country’s premier sporting destinations,” said President and Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission David Gilbert. “Not only will Olympic athletes now be traveling to train right here in northeast Ohio, but this designation will help drive other athletes and events to SPIRE and our region.” It is estimated that the designation will also bring in many millions of dollars to the area.
“SPIRE is a world-class resource and it is an important catalyst for bringing visitors to Ashtabula County,” says Iannone. The institute also has a high school that brings in students from all over the world. “It is remarkable to see all these young people who want to be high-performance athletes.”
Ashtabula County has a strategic action plan for 2015 to 2018 with numerous initiatives in place to develop businesses and jobs in the area. The plan is the result of six months of hard work and dedication by the Growth Partnership. It identifies key economic and community development priorities to be addressed over three years, and it lays out the strategies necessary to implement the priorities, including increasing existing business competitiveness, advancing the workforce and education and strengthening community vitality and quality of life.
Iannone persuaded the partnership trustees to create a tiered membership with five levels. “We are very much a membership organization, and our membership is growing,” he says. The Growth Partnership operates with a budget of approximately $500,000 a year, which Iannone wants to see increased to $600,000.
Ashtabula County has seen the expansion of six existing businesses create 166 new jobs via an investment of $132 million. In 2015, the county had fourteen announced business expansions that have created, or will create in 2015 to 2016, over 500 new jobs for its dedicated and hard-working population of about 99,000.
With convenient access to Interstate 90, an enthusiastic workforce, a strong focus on entrepreneurship and numerous training initiatives, Ashtabula County has a great deal to offer businesses wishing to set-up shop in Ohio. “We are getting more interest every day with everything that Ashtabula County has to offer.”