Voices and Choices Leadership Forums in Full Swing

Submitted by Sudhir Kade on Wed, 09/14/2005 - 15:39.

On Monday one of fifteen Voices and Choices Leadership Workshop Forums took place (there is one planned for each of fifteen counties comprising Northeast Ohio) in Geneva, Ohio. The event was attended by over a hundred participants, many of whom hold various positions of leadership and public office in Ashtabula County. Participants congregated at roundtables, eight to ten participants to a table. The purpose of this forum was to generate dialog and insight around the concept of a regional strategy for economic transformation for Northeast Ohio – and what factors or conditions might make this vision a reality. Data was collected and transferred in real-time via electronic polling keypads and iMac laptop computers to a designated ‘theme team’, which processed the data during the conference and translated all submissions into general themes and focal points. I had the honor of serving as a facilitator at one of the tables – giving me the unique opportunity to rub elbows with city managers, media representatives and township trustees alike and hear their ‘Voices and Choices’. The Voices and Choices initiative has been supported by the Fund for our Economic Future – a funding base representing the pooled philanthropic contributions of over 70 Northeast Ohio organizations. 

In the past, cities and counties were drivers of economic progress, but today – as key speakers emphasized, these entities are too small to drive progress in a new global economy. Further emphasis was also placed on building upon our strong asset base, which include – excellent cost of living, diversity of lifestyle choices, accessibility by car, a shared labor pool (mobile workforce), excellent system of higher education, a collection of cultural gems, and a world-class healthcare system. Challenges to overcome to make regional transformation a reality were also highlighted: these include: transitioning from an industrial past, stimulating employment growth (averaging 11.5% from 1990 to 2000), enhancing workforce development and skills, decreasing the high cost of doing business in the region, overcoming racial segregation, dealing with fragmented governance (represented by over 500 civic jurisdictions and 200 municipalities), and resolving income inequality. 

The problem of suburban sprawl was also highlighted as a problem costing taxpayers more as migration out of cities is exacerbated by flat population growth. As a result the urban core of the region is declining and this creates an unattractive picture for businesses and entrepreneurs. It was emphasized that should current trends proceed unchecked, extreme population loss will occur in Cuyahoga, Trumbull, and Mahoning Counties – with growth only occurring in Medina and possibly Geauga counties. 

Another presentation point focused on regionalism as a potential answer to these problems. As a region, it was indicated, we have over 4 million people, 1.8 million workers, a gross regional product greater than South Africa, Israel, and Sweden. Also heartening, over 86% of citizens polled thus far support a regional plan for economic development. It is the vision of the Voices and Choices initiative in Northeast Ohio to facilitate a regional economic transformation through unprecedented levels of dialogue and information sharing via thousands of citizen interviews, ambassadorship on the part of citizens, and multiple leadership forums and larger town hall meetings. Details of the plan can be found at the website www.voiceschoices.org 

This unprecedented initiative is being directed by Washington-based nonprofit organization AmericaSpeaks in conjunction with the Universities Collaborative.

This particular session, held for Ashtabula County, revealed many telling insights along the five primary topic areas: economic growth, education and skill enhancement, quality of life, equity and fairness, and cooperation and governance. The key sticking point to economic growth was agreed upon by this group to be resistance to change (entrenched policies). The main challenge for education and skill development was identified as restructuring school funding. For quality of life, reaching consensus was highlighted first. Low self perception was seen as a key driver of inequity and lack of fairness. And finally, for cooperation and governance – the key problem was identified as local governments not working effectively to collaborate – making it very difficult for regional cooperation.

In a final important step, each table derived key short term action steps (implement able within six months) that would be feasible and realistic toward economic development.

On the whole, this was a fascinating and energizing event – the true effectiveness of these efforts will take time to ascertain. I, for one, am genuinely hopeful and enthused by the positive possibilities for our region.