April 17, 2014

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Consortium wants to revitalize Northeast Ohio

AMHERST — Focus group reports usually end up gathering dust.

Members of the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium are trying to prevent that fate for a plan they’re developing to revitalize Northeast Ohio.

“Everything that we’re going to come up with is really going to have a framework or a tool to it that can lead to action,” consortium spokesman Jeff Anderle said Tuesday during a meeting of businesspeople, politicians and nonprofit group members. “It’s not a report that gets printed and gets dated the next day. It’s a report that can kind of be living on the Internet and you can add to it, people can comment on it and people can interact with it.”

The informal gathering at Cork’s Wine Bar & Bistro was the third hosted by the consortium, which is primarily funded by a federal taxpayer grant through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Formed January 2011, the consortium’s goal is regionalized planning in economic development, infrastructure and transportation improvements and land use in the 12 counties comprising Northeast Ohio. The report is expected to be released in late June or July.

In a time of shrinking regional population and resources, regionalism — shared government services among communities to cut costs and duplication — was a hot topic at the gathering.

“We all have to work together: the communities, the schools, the government,” Grafton Mayor Megan Flanigan told the group of about 50 people. “We’re all interconnected.”

However, regionalism often butts heads with provincialism, as local leaders seek to protect their jobs and turf. Anderle acknowledged the consortium has to walk a fine line promoting regionalism in a state that values local control. The conflict has been exacerbated by suburban sprawl and cuts to schools and other local government services, which make an area less attractive to stay in or move to.

“People can choose to live wherever they want to, but it has to be done with the understanding that not all of these areas can be self-sustaining in the future if the economy keeps going as it goes and fiscal cuts continue,” Anderle said. “It’s a tough place to be in. You’re tying to create a competitive region, but at the same time we’re having a lot of cuts.”

Hunter Morrison, consortium executive director, said rather than subvert home rule, his group is providing local leaders with more tools to help them make better decisions. He cited the land use map on the consortium’s website at neoscc.org, which details commercial, industrial and park lands in Northeast Ohio and a regionalized zoning map that is being developed.

“If there’s a will in the individual communities to change things, they’ve got better tools to do that,” Morrison said.

The gathering featured a brainstorming session. Ideas including consolidating nonprofit groups, better promotion of Lorain County Community College and Oberlin College, and more promotion of the area’s relatively low cost of living.

Dan Metelsky, a former Lorain City Council member and state representative, challenged the group’s younger members to become politically active. But he warned them that change isn’t welcomed by the establishment.

“The people change, the names change, but the culture that we live in in this community has not changed,” Metelsky said. “You can impact what goes on in the political world by becoming involved in it, as opposed to running away from it or going on Facebook and having no place in the real discussions that go on day to day.”

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.