The Crawford Partnership for Education and Economic Development is a non-profit organization and public-private partnership, which began in 2010 with an initiative called the Crawford: 20/20 Vision plan. This plan was a grassroots effort by citizens of the county to identify its greatest challenges and opportunities relating to growth, and to develop actionable solutions to address them.
Since then, the initiative has evolved into a professional organization with the goal of enhancing the livelihood of Crawford County (and by extension, Ohio) through strategic economic and community development. As Executive & Economic Development Director Gary Frankhouse says, “Our vision is that our community will be a place where individuals seek to live and work, businesses succeed, and public and private sector organizations collaborate effectively to meet the changing needs of our citizens.”
The efforts of the Partnership toward workforce and economic development have centered on its relationship to the education system and how to best prepare the county’s youngest citizens for future employment. Frankhouse says that there is a continuum of workforce effort that is unique to Crawford County, a timeline that begins with students in kindergarten all the way up to grade 12 in high school (and beyond).
The first step of this effort starts with the Leader in Me program, intended for children from kindergarten to grade five, which is a leadership development effort based on the book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Leaders” by Stephen Covey. This program has already been implemented into three Crawford County schools, and Frankhouse says there is significant positive change in the cultures of the local schools thanks to the program. Following this is the W.A.G.E. (Workforce Awareness Graduate Educator) Tour program for eighth graders, which seeks to educate teachers in grades 6 through 12 in different local industries so that they and their students can better understand career opportunities at home.
The next step is one that is the cornerstone of Crawford County’s approach to workforce development, and perhaps its most successful, that being the website Community Opportunity. The site is a resource for students, job seekers, and area businesses to connect and share opportunities for employment within the county. Crawford achieved the website’s launch by partnering with neighboring Wyandot County to, as Frankhouse says, “[recognize] the impact of regional economic development and workforce development.”
At the 9th grade, the website opens to students, who create an online profile that they will use for their high school tenure and beyond, in order to connect and focus on local employment. The site was launched in January 2018, and to date has nearly a thousand students registered, more than 230 job postings, and around 130 business profiles populating the site. The site has also received recognition from the Ohio Economic Development Association for Excellence in Workforce Development and is one of the Partnership’s greatest points of pride.
As the website becomes a greater part of a county student’s future employment goals, further programs are used at respective grade levels to continue workforce development among the youth: In tenth grade, students are introduced to technical centers; eleventh grade, job shadowing of local industries and employers is implemented; and, in twelfth grade, internships become a factor in students’ grades and can be factored toward college credit. To further aid students leaving the K-12 system, the Crawford Success Center was opened in 2016, offering students classes, workforce training, and professional development (in association with North Central State College in Mansfield). Frankhouse says that the center offers certificate programs like nursing, and even bachelor’s programs in fields like mechanical engineering thanks to the partnership with NCSC.
Stepping outside its focus on students, Crawford County has several initiatives to draw from to aid growth opportunities. Frankhouse references the fact that the county is located on the Route 30 corridor, and within an eight-hour drive of 60 percent of businesses in the U.S. To this end, the State of Ohio invested over ninety million dollars in 2008 toward expanding the highway to a four-lane connection, resulting in multiple interchanges within Crawford County. Two of these interchanges have been overlaid with “Opportunity Zones,” which are part of a program where an area taxpayer reinvests proceeds from the sale of an eligible business or property into an “Opportunity Fund,” which will in turn invest into one or more businesses or properties within qualified Opportunity Zones (low-income areas designated by federal and state government due to unique development opportunities therein). There are currently 320 Opportunity Zones in Ohio – Crawford County being home to two of them – and they represent both a major project for the state’s future as well as a great boon to the local and state economies.
Another arm at the Partnership’s disposal is called Grow Crawford, which has a broad economic development focus of supporting the retention and expansion of existing local business, attracting new business and encouraging expansion, and continuing development, training, and retention of a quality local workforce (among other goals). Grow Crawford’s primary role is connecting interested parties with organizations like RGP Northwest Ohio and JobsOhio for tax incentives on a state level, which in turn involves the organization with the greater economic and workforce growth of both its home county and state. Frankhouse says that this also gives the Partnership access to “incredible resources to support the growth of our community.”
These and many other efforts would hardly be possible for the organization without the support of its investors and the community at large. Frankhouse says that collaboration is one of the core tenets of the Partnership, and investors generously support its many efforts because of the shared vision for a vibrant and successful community. He notes that many of the efforts have been driven by passionate individuals and smaller organizations within Crawford County. The Board of Directors comprises over twenty individuals from public and private sectors, and great effort is made to facilitate and listen to community input, so that the work may be guided by such feedback.
When it began some nine years ago, the organization was founded to identify challenges and take steps toward addressing them. Frankhouse says that today, almost all the challenges currently faced have to do with population decline, as Crawford County and many other rural Ohio communities have experienced this steadily in recent years. Since the 1980s, Crawford County’s population has decreased by 20 percent, leading to a significant impact on the local workforce. The organization’s many efforts look to circumvent this challenging circumstance in many ways, but Frankhouse notes a specific effort to reverse population decline that comes from partners at the Community Foundation for Crawford County, which recently introduced the “Come Home Scholarship.” The scholarship is intended for county graduates who have left for higher education or work experience, offering a prospective recipient $10,000 toward their student debt if they agree to come back to the county to live and work.
Crawford is the first county in Ohio, and only the fourth in the entire United States, to offer such an opportunity. The goal is to get people to work and to bring them back home to Ohio to do so, and while Frankhouse says that the opportunity to leave Ohio to explore one’s future is something embraced by the Partnership, the resources are here for when someone may wish to return (for one reason or another) for them to be inserted into the local workforce.
Gary Frankhouse says that several significant projects are in the works for 2019, with a specific focus continually being placed on Community Opportunity as a top growth priority. A housing study will be implemented to investigate the housing needs of cities Galion, Bucyrus, and village Crestline to determine what housing is needed to attract business to these communities. Frankhouse says that personal accountability and soft skills are issues within today’s workforce, and the programs that the Partnership has undertaken are efforts to address these issues.
While there is a reactionary effort to try and provide more workers now, the continuum in practice by Crawford County and the state of Ohio is part of a more proactive effort and a greater long-term solution. Frankhouse concludes by saying the Crawford Partnership “will continue to drive efforts to enhance the livelihood of our community into the year 2020 (as the 20/20 Vision plan originally intended) and beyond.”