Coming off what may be the best year for economic development in the county’s history, leaders of the Hardin County Chamber and Business Alliance hope to continue to capitalize on that momentum with a new five-year strategic plan.
That plan will be highlighted during the organization’s annual meeting, set for Thursday evening in the McIntosh Center ballroom on the campus of Ohio Northern University in Ada. A reception will begin at 6 p.m., followed by dinner at 6:30 p.m.
The 2014 Citizen of the Year, Business of the Year and Community Service Awards will be presented. A keynote speech will be delivered by Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel.
During a pre-annual meeting interview with President and CEO Jon Cross, Director of Economic Development John Hohn and Board Chairman Tim Street, they discussed the county’s recent success and goals for the future. During 2014, the county saw its unemployment rate fall to 3.9 percent – the lowest level in several years. Plus, more than $150 million in new construction projects were started or completed during the year, headlined by International Paper’s move to double the size of its manufacturing facility in Kenton. Add to that the announcement by Sekisui Plastics USA that it will locate a new manufacturing facility in Kenton. Also, construction of the Kenton Elementary School was completed and a new K-12 building for Ridgemont Schools will open in the fall.
To continue that growth, the new strategic plan features six core goals:
• Foster economic vitality: Position for new growth, jobs and investment opportunities.
• Revitalize our communities: Improve countywide image and appearance and enhance the quality of life.
• Invest in people: Develop, cultivate and recruit workforce talent and entrepreneurial opportunities.
• Promote agricultural connectivity: Advancing agricultural innovation with agribusiness opportunities.
• Build community collaboration: Foster public-private partnerships with community stakeholders.
• Strengthen the Alliance: Remain a professional and resourceful member-driven organization.
“We’ve already hit the ground running,” said President and CEO Jon Cross. During a series of meetings with governmental and business leaders and owners, he said they all have the same focus of creating more jobs in the county.
Hohn said business retention and expansion has been and continues to be a priority of the Alliance. “I’ve probably spent 80 percent of my time to keep what we have,” he said. After some eight years on the job, Hohn said in landing Sekisui Plastics, “We finally caught the big fish.” He said it was a matter of having a willing land owner, the facility and space available, and marketing it to the fullest extent.
“It took us seven years,” Street said, noting economic development “is a marathon, not a sprint.”
But that was the last available building. While there’s plenty of land to develop, to continue industrial growth Cross said the county needs more buildings. During the next 24 months he will be meeting with developers and contractors to get more buildings. “We have to have something to sell,” he said. As part of that selling process, Cross said the Alliance has divided the county into two sections. It will market the City of Kenton and its industrial park, as well as what they are calling the U.S. 30 industrial corridor – which will focus on opportunities in Ada, Dunkirk and Forest. “We don’t care where they land, we just want them in Hardin County,” Cross said.
Another concern is while low unemployment is good, the county has to make sure it has the workforce available for new business. By 2025, Cross said, 50 percent of the employees in Hardin County and northwest Ohio are going to retire. “Today’s students need to fill a major void,” he said.
To help develop a future workforce, the Alliance has received a Community Connector grant. It is designed to start reaching students in the fifth and sixth grades to let them know about businesses in the county, and continue in grades seven and eight with job shadowing.
For students in grades 9-12, projects such as the new career center planned at the former Northwood School in Kenton will help them develop skills needed by local employers. But Hohn said for non-collegiate students, area businesses want workers who are on time, drug-free and have basic math skills. “They can take someone and mold them into the employee they need,” he said. “They need to train workers using the latest technology used in their plant.”
Cross said the key is retaining young people to work in these jobs. He said through such things as a Junior Ambassadors program, they can learn that Hardin County is a great place to live, grow and prosper.
“Many of our students don’t know what’s out there. They have an opportunity for good wages and good benefits in Hardin County,” Hohn said.
Cross said the county also needs other students to learn a trade and want to start their own businesses. “We need to teach students and challenge them to be an employer and not an employee,” he said.
The Alliance has evolved along with the growth of the county. Street noted that in Cross it finally has one person in place to run the organization. Plus, the board made the decision to keep Hohn in his position through the end of this year, when he plans to retire. “It gives us the opportunity to really move forward with everything we’ve begun,” Hohn said.
The board itself has changed. Rather than having new leaders every years, Street said the positions of chairman, vice chairman and past chairman will be two-year terms to help follow through with the strategic plan. In addition, the number of committees has been streamlined and aligned with a certain division within the Alliance to get more accomplished, Street said. “The organization has positioned ourselves for future growth,” Hohn said.