Business plan to guide county economic development

Audrey Fletcher

In early spring, Portage County will have a plan to guide business growth and retention in the county for the first time.


-Rubber and plastics

-Oil and gas

-Geographic location

-Potential strength in medical devices


-Lack of qualified workers

-Dislike of manufacturing

-Companies can’t build new structures

Quality workers needed

Brad Ehrhart, the director of the Portage County Development Board, said one of the biggest weaknesses the county faces is that the workforce is not qualified for the positions that companies have open.

“One of the biggest weaknesses we have—and this is not unique to Portage County—is that we have a great mismatch of skills that are required and skills that are available,” Ehrhart said.

He said Portage County does not have much of a pipeline for a skilled workforce. Some companies today have a 6.5 percent unemployment rate and cannot find employees.

Ehrhart said the problem stems from people’s attitudes towards manufacturers. He said after the early 1980s when manufacturing changed and plants shut down, people no longer saw manufacturing as a lucrative career.

But manufacturing never died in this county,” Ehrhart said. “It just evolved and changed.”

Manufacturing has become more artesian and also requires knowledge of technology, Ehrhart said. Workers have to be able to troubleshoot with computers when machines fail in addition to having traditional skills.

Ehrhart sees a manufacturers’ coalition as a solution. He said a coalition would communicate to the general public that manufacturing is not dead as well as find a way to support a vocational education so that students can get the knowledge they need to be successful in a manufacturing career.

“It cannot be dictated from the government; it can’t be dictated by the Portage Development Board,” Ehrhart said. “Manufacturers are going to have to get together and say, ‘I have a problem. I can’t find workers.’”

The Portage County Regional Planning Commission is in the process of creating this plan for the Portage County Development Board.

Once completed, the plan will focus on retaining and expanding existing businesses and bringing in and encouraging entrepreneurs to start new businesses in the county.

“The idea of the business plan is to actually put more of a focus on what are our assets, and what are we good at?” said Todd Peetz, director of the Portage County Regional Planning Commission. “How do we coordinate better? How do we work together better as a county and a variety of different communities to help bring in jobs?”

Ziona Austrian, the director for the Center of Economic Development at the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University, said when creating a plan, it is important to make sure it allows people to take action and is not just a strategy.

“I think they need to develop a common understanding of what are the strengths and weaknesses of the county,” Austrian said. “So what drives the economy? How does the workforce look? What industries drive the economy?”

Peetz said evaluating the county is already part of the commission’s process.

The Portage County Regional Planning Commission completed a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats analysis, which is a study done to identify those things in the county.

Brad Ehrhart, the director of the Portage County Development Board, said the plan will focus on the county’s strengths as well improving areas of weakness.

The county’s strengths cited in the analysis are its universities and location for distribution. Its main weakness was the lack of a pipeline for a skilled workforce, which means companies cannot find qualified workers for open positions.

“This is not just a Portage County problem; this is a national problem,” Ehrhart said. “But the successful come to the community that solves it first or comes up with a unique solution.”

Bob McKee, Vice President, Senior Banking Relationship Manager at Key Bank, said currently, the economy in Portage is doing well. From the bank’s perspective, he said it has seen a lot of activity from businesses.

McKee said he has seen the most activity through businesses investing in equipment, expanding building sizes and growing business in general.

Peetz said the regional planning commission’s role is to help guide the plan as well as gather data for it. This includes researching other business plans implemented around the country.

“We’re going to look at them for examples of good ideas that might work in Portage County,” Peetz said. “So we’re not entirely reinventing the wheel but also looking at what our local customers want to see happen.”

The planning commission also surveyed members of the business community as a part of its research.

Austrian said that is another crucial part of the planning process.

“I think when you’re starting a strategic plan it’s really important to make sure that you have all the right players around the table,” Austrian said. “So the table itself is significant because it puts people together and if you miss somebody important then the whole plan can be jeopardized.”

Currently, Peetz said the county does not have any guiding principles and or coordination.

“We really do need to have a document that sits down and says to us, ‘Yeah, this is the direction we should be heading. We should probably focus more of our resources on x as opposed to x times infinity,’” Ehrhart said.

Ehrhart said the plan will help further the development board’s mission.

“We’re the county’s economic development agency. My mission is really simple,” Ehrhart said. “I work with companies to help them stay, to grow, to start up and locate in Portage County. And the goal behind that is to work with the companies that will create and keep family sustaining employment. That’s it.”

The plan will cost the Portage Development Board $12,000 and is expected to be completed in March or April.

Contact Audrey Fletcher at [email protected].