Common Ground, Not Battleground

By Lavea Brachman, Executive Director, Greater Ohio Policy Center With the aftermath of the election barely behind us and the so-called “fiscal cliff” looming, political polarization seems unabated.  But beneath the surface and beyond the drama of the national election in “battleground Ohio,” Ohio is less divided in ways that matter to economic progress.  As a bipartisan state policy organization, we are privileged to observe the similarities of governing and good policies among policymakers of both parties.

First, the urban-rural divide characterizing Ohio for decades has quietly and gradually begun to fade away.  Seven major regions in the state exist now, centered around cities. Rural places are increasingly economically dependent on the urban areas and their satellites.  But benefits extend in both directions- for example, urban Columbus-ites enjoy the proximity of the Hocking Hills while those in the Appalachian region benefit from health care and spin off jobs from the city.

Second, for over a decade, policymakers have been turning these regions into the building blocks of the new economy.  Democratic and Republican governors alike embraced the concepts found in a seminal report completed in the mid-2000’s during the Taft Administration, identifying key economic regions in the state and critical industries. A regional economic development approach was initiated under Governor Strickland with now Governor Kasich working on economic redevelopment through on-the-ground regional organizations. While implementation scenarios vary, regional economic growth efforts – corresponding loosely to metropolitan regions -- are starting to take hold. Third, a consensus is growing across the political spectrum around the need for smarter governance and shared services that save taxpayers money. From top to bottom, local governments are experimenting with shared services.  Governments are considering consolidation for cost-savings. We may disagree about how to implement this, but practical fiscal considerations are prevailing.

Fourth, most agree it was not enough to “save” the auto industry in Ohio. We need to continue to build a new economy, which includes calibrating supply and demand in the workforce arena.  Many businesses cannot fill their job openings because workers are untrained or have the wrong skills.  Creating vocational and community college programs that match business needs – begun under Strickland and continued under Kasich – is critical.

Fifth, by now the foreclosure crisis sadly has reached beyond cities; vacant buildings and properties and blight plague urban, suburban and rural areas alike.  Most agree innovative programs are needed to jumpstart our markets.  At the urging of local Democratic leaders, Ohio’s Republican Attorney General dedicated $75 million from a national legal settlement fund for demolition in communities across the state.   The Clean Ohio Fund grants that give Ohio a competitive advantage in brownfield remediation and redevelopment have been in place for over a decade through three governors.

Finally, leaders across Ohio are taking notice of a new market demand for an urban lifestyle.  Opposite ends of the demographic spectrum (baby boomers and Generation Y’ers) want dense walkable neighborhoods, access to transit and other urban amenities.  Developers and policymakers are recognizing that Ohio needs a piece of that demographic action to compete, so it is critical that we leverage these trends in order to compete nationally and globally.

We are not naïve.  Many issues are still divisive – from equity to poverty, health and tax policy, to whether the mortgage crisis resulted from unwise borrowers or fraudulent lenders. However, Ohioans should showcase our bipartisan policies. Four years from now, we should aim to leverage the next election spotlight and highlight areas of commonality and Midwestern pragmatism as a model for other places.  Getting beyond the politics, particularly in a state with so many major cities in population free-fall and large pockets of long-term poverty, is critical.

Cities have been called the building blocks of the new economy, because local leadership is more likely to set aside political party partisanship to govern pragmatically. Let’s call attention to this pragmatism at the state level too.  Ohio’s mix of urban and rural, black and white, rich and poor, Eastern and Midwestern that make it a microcosm attracting the national spotlight every four years is also a key asset and the foundation for economic revitalization and renewal policies for our cities, towns and neighborhoods. Ohioans should take stock and leverage the national spotlight to benefit Ohio and the rest of the country.