Expanding on that maxim, the need to better measure the strengths and weaknesses of the Northeast Ohio economy, as a prelude to improving it, may end up being a key takeaway from Jon Pinney’s June 8 speech at the City Club of Cleveland. There, the managing partner of the Kohrman Jackson & Krantz law firm pronounced that the Northeast Ohio economy was “dead last or near the bottom in most economic metrics.”
He cited recent national media coverage, such as Forbes’ “Best Cities for Jobs”survey, which ranked Cleveland last out of 71 major metro areas, and Business Insider’s ranking of the country’s 40 best and worst regional economies, where Cleveland also placed last.
As Business Insider reported, Cleveland had the highest February 2017 unemployment rate, at 5.7%, among the 40 biggest metro areas, and its job growth was the second-lowest, with non-farm payroll employment rising just 0.3% between February 2016 and February 2017.
The struggles of the region’s economy are nothing new. Some data make that point when they are periodically announced, such as Census Bureau reports that show the region’s population decline and when the Labor Department announces the monthly unemployment rate.
Pinney was highlighting the need to pay more attention on a regular basis to those and other measurements of the region’s performance and to compare that performance to other regions. He closed his comments by making a “grand challenge” to business and civic leaders to face up to the region’s poor showing when compared to the rest of the country and find solutions to the region’s economic sluggishness.
Before that can happen, however, the region needs better data — data that have not been as readily available in Northeast Ohio as they are in some other areas.
In Columbus, for example, Columbus 2020, the region’s economic development agency, posts on its website updated monthly data on the size and composition of the regional workforce, including a graph which shows if the employed workforce is growing or declining and a pie chart of which industries employ the most people.
It’s a barebones example of what economists call an “economic dashboard.”
Greater MSP, an economic development agency in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, goes further. Its “Regional Indicators Dashboard” tracks changes in more than 50 economic, environmental and social outcomes and how the region ranks with a peer group of regional economies. It includes everything from average weekly wages to percentage of the population with a college degree to the cost of electricity.
Don Iannone, a Highland Heights-based economic development consultant, produced a dashboard for Ashtabula County after becoming CEO of the Growth Partnership for Ashtabula County in 2014. It provided a wide variety of regularly updated information for several years covering data on employment and business formation in the county.
But because the economy was struggling, business and civic leaders weren’t always happy to see their economic difficulties on display on the internet.
“People didn’t like the bad news. They just didn’t,” he said. But to him, it was a necessary regular assessment. “I said, it’s actually like going in for a physical and the doctor gives you all the news, good and bad,” Iannone said.
In 2005, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland produced an economic dashboard proposal for the Fund for Our Economic Future, a collaboration of foundations and other philanthropies that focuses on regional economic development. The goal was “to encourage and advance a common and highly focused regional economic development agenda that can lead to a long-term economic transformation of the Northeast Ohio (NEO) economy.”
The work, said one economist who worked on the project, was noble, but was overwhelmed by other priorities at the time.
“The great recession had a major influence on how we could approach this activity,” said Jack Kleinhenz, an economist now running Kleinhenz & Associates in Cleveland Heights. “In 2005, the economy started to go in the tank and everybody was preoccupied, I hate to say it, more by survival.”
That effort is being revived.
Earlier this year, the Fund for Our Economic Future released “2 Tomorrows,” a report on the challenges facing the 18-county Northeast Ohio economy. “We are not innovating and investing to the level needed to drive and sustain global competitiveness,” the report stated. “We need to change what we consider success.”
Beyond basic economic concerns, the report focused on the concentration of poverty in the region and on racial inequalities in economic outcomes and challenges to create good jobs and rising incomes across the region.
It also offers a set of measurements to track how well the region is succeeding at meeting those challenges. “What gets measured gets done,” the study argued.
“In ‘2 Tomorrows,’ we put forth what we think is an effective way to measure the economy that looks like the right things,” fund president Brad Whitehead said. “We’ll be doing it quarterly, and it’s an open question whether anyone else will salute it.”
Its measurements look beyond the basic economic metrics and create a “Growth & Opportunity Scorecard” that creates measurements for metrics such as the growth of young businesses, the effort to improve prosperity and how well economic growth is shared across all people in the region.
“We began by thinking, blank slate, what would a successful regional economy look like?” said Peter Truog, director of civic innovation and insight at the fund. He called it an effort to “look at a group of peer cities and see how we stack up.”
Team Northeast Ohio, the regional economic development nonprofit, does gather information on the region’s economy and workforce. While it issues quarterly data to news media, it uses the data primarily to encourage businesses and site selectors considering expanding in the region.
Its president, Bill Koehler, does see the need for greater sharing of the information its researchers gather and would like to see some organization, not his, take a lead role in gathering and sharing that information.
“We need a common place where (this) data resides,” Koehler said. “But even if there is a centralized place where all the data is, we still have to have a common understanding of what the right performance drivers and metrics are, and all of us have to align our strategies around that. It’s not happening enough and people are starting to recognize and challenging those of us in the economic development community to take on the responsibility of doing a better job.”