Ashtabula County in Ohio is famous for covered bridges, the Grand River Valley wineries, the Pymatuning State Park, Barn Quilt Trail, and other scenic delights. A hit with tourists, the state’s northeastern-most county is also a popular place to start a company.
Formed 30 years ago, the Growth Partnership for Ashtabula County champions growth and economic development in the county, with the aim of enticing companies both large and small to the area. Under the leadership of Executive Director Greg Myers, the private non-profit has been doing a great job of business attraction and retention, and has become the area’s preeminent economic development organization.
Mindful that thousands of America’s Baby Boomers are retiring daily – about 10,000 actually – and that younger workers are needed to fill positions today and into the future, the Growth Partnership for Ashtabula County created a paid internship program in mid-2019.
The Growth Partnership had been aware that a similar program had been running successfully in a neighboring county under program director, Georgia Klemencic. “When she became available, we extended an offer of employment for her to come over and become our program director,” says Myers. He says that Ms. Klemencic is bringing fresh ideas to the County. “Even though it’s a program that’s new to Ashtabula County, it’s one she’s been running for seven or eight years very successfully.”
Signaling expansion, growth, and employment opportunities in the County, the apprenticeship program also serves as recognition of workplace turnover as baby boomers retire.
“It’s up to us to make sure we are being proactive on the workforce development side to gauge existing workforce-age people who may be under-employed and looking at new opportunities, and others working outside the County today who aren’t aware of opportunities,” says Myers, adding that the Growth Partnership is also messaging high school juniors and seniors and their parents.
Adopting a multi-pronged approach to workforce retention, development, and growth, Myers and his team at the Partnership are focused on students heading off to college, pairing them up with internships at local companies in their senior year of high school.
By connecting students and businesses, the goal is to see them come back in the summer to work, even after they’ve left for college. A boomerang effect in recent years – with locals moving away, starting a family, and returning to the county – has also led to the creation of an online jobs board which posts work opportunities.
With industry having played a vital role in the Ashtabula economy for years, about 20 percent of residents are presently employed in manufacturing. As with many communities across America, finding young workers for an expanding industry is a challenge.
Addressing this, the Partnership is working on programs to connect young people with employers in base industry segments like manufacturing and healthcare, and to expose them to career opportunities and to the acquisition of technical skills in much-needed specialties like machine operation.
New gas pipeline, new opportunity
This December saw the completion of a new natural gas pipeline into Ashtabula County, an event celebrated at a ribbon-cutting attended by politicians, the press, and locals alike. Comprising about 30 miles of existing pipeline and 28 miles of new pipe – some 12 miles of which lies inside the county borders – the Risberg Pipeline represents not only the flow of natural gas into Ashtabula, but job creation during construction, new jobs, and an invitation for other industries to come to the area.
Linking Pennsylvania to the Ohio line and Ashtabula County, the new natural gas pipeline now enables the area to support the expansion of existing businesses and increase its attractiveness to new business, since it now can supply commercial-level natural gas.
The pipeline not only resulted in job creation during the construction phase, but plays a part in the county’s shortlisting for several large-scale projects. Scheduled to start in the in first quarter of 2020, one of the largest will be for Petmin USA Incorporated (https://petminusa.com/).
First pig iron plant
Based in South Africa, Petmin is in the final stages of its new pig iron plant, representing a capital investment of about $500 million. “We could not have competed for that project if we didn’t have the natural gas line expansion,” says Meyers.
At the time that the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) issued its final air emissions permit last year for the facility – which will produce high-grade pig iron for the metal casting industry – it was estimated that the project would see 110 full-time men and women employed, along with over 500 construction workers.
“Petmin is very excited to be bringing our company to Ashtabula and the Northeast Ohio region,” said Bradley Doig, Petmin USA President and Chief Executive Officer, in a media release, adding “We selected Ashtabula for a number of reasons, including access to a port, manageable electric and natural gas costs and proximity to our future customers.
“We believe that this world-class facility producing this high-specification pig iron for the first time in the USA will put Ashtabula firmly on the map for future commercial growth.” Doig went on to state how impressed he was with the “collaboration and support demonstrated by our public and private partners at all levels,” including the Growth Partnership for Ashtabula County, the City of Ashtabula, Team NEO, JobsOhio, and the Ashtabula County Port Authority. The new plant will be built on 30 acres of lakefront property at Ashtabula’s Pinney Dock Terminal.
Petmin is a major contributor to the American manufacturing sector, providing about 200,000 jobs in the U.S. and contributing approximately $33 billion. The Petmin plant in Ashtabula will also benefit locals through permanent jobs. “This project will be a major shot in the arm for the economy of Ashtabula County and the surrounding area,” Myers said last year.
“It will create high-quality manufacturing jobs here, pump millions of dollars annually into our local economy, support new business spending and generate tax revenues. This project will also result in this type of iron being American-made instead of having to rely upon foreign production.”
During its construction, it is believed the project will require about 650 workers, with over $35 million – in additional spending on housing, groceries, restaurants, retail, entertainment and so on – cycling back into the local economy.
Along with great accessibility by road and rail (including spurs), Ashtabula County is known for its harbor. With two commercial deepwater ports, the County can bring in fully-loaded shipping, accessible by rail.
And with the Ashtabula County Port Authority owning and operating Plant C – a raw water facility serving many existing industries, especially chemical – future expansion can include industries requiring plenty of water such as chemical and energy, and development in the Marcellus Formation and Utica Shale.
“As we continue to grow we are very well-positioned because we are connected to that region very well by our rail assets, our highway assets, and we are connected to the Ohio River and the transportation system,” says Myers. “We are in a very unique play to connect to the chemical and energy industries. We also have a strong composite industry here today, and will continue to develop that. Those are really our key segments.”
Recently moving to the Center for Economic Development, the Growth Partnership for Ashtabula County is now consolidated with the Ashtabula County Port Authority, and the Ashtabula County 503 Corporation (AC503), the local lending program.
Being under one roof allows for more day-to-day collaboration on project opportunities, and allows for increased day-to-day engagement, resulting in more collaboration opportunities.
Entering a new year, Executive Director Myers is excited about 2019’s many accomplishments, and those to come in the following months, with the Petmin project high on the list.
There is also the continued marketing of Ashtabula County’s many unique competitive advantages to targeted business segments. Myers will also continue with the paid internship program, the active engagement of the local high school junior and senior population, and the companies offering internship opportunities.
“For us, if we can accomplish some of those goals, it’s going to be a very successful 2020.”