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Creative Conservatism

January 11, 2012 Comments off

Any regular readers of my blog will know I have passionate views about certain trends we’re witnessing in our times. One note that resonates loudly many times over in my posts is the concept of creativity (or the lack there of).

Take for example this recent post in Wired Magazine…“Killing America’s Dreams, One Lousy Concept Car at a Time”.

The Detroit Auto Show has always been a glimpse into the future of automobiles, which in turn gave us pause to consider the future of everything.  But now it seems that the designers have stepped back into what I call creative conservatism. Dare we throw out our ideas and they are not accepted by the intelligentsia.

So here we are in 2012. We have batches of engineers and designers that likely came of age within the  hyper-testing culture of the U.S. education system. They have been asked to remember facts and regurgitate onto exams to make sure they are “proficient”. However in those mass production zones of schools, creativity has been educated out of most children.

In this blog title, you see the phrase, “Dreams roll across the heartland…” This line is part of the song “Middletown Dreams” by the Canadian rock group Rush. The song goes to explain the dreams most middle class Americans have about their possible lives, and the realities of their times. The great conflict between following your dreams or abiding by standard social convention.

Looking at the cars in this years car show, its clear to me this conflict is alive and well in our modern society.

Eric

Small Town Opportunities

January 5, 2012 Comments off

I have a deep interest in small towns. My parents grew up in a small town, I grew up in a small town and we currently live in a small town.

Much has been said about the decline of small town America. There is a sense that, like many things, small towns speak of a bygone era…a less-then-progressive environment…a place of limited opportunities and closed minded philosophies. Yet, for all of these negative views, small towns still remain as viable part of the landscape of Ohio (and our country).

So, what’s really going on here?

Recently Becky McCray of Small Biz Survival condensed the top 9 rural business trends. Her full write up can be found here.

Here are the 9 trends, I’ve paraphrased with my perspectives, but please read her insights!

1. Strong farm commodity prices mean strong local economies.
We owe our existence to agriculture and that relationship will remain. As changes occur in the farm industry, so to will those changes occur in small towns.

2. Some places get “just one more” oil boom.
With the advancements in oil discovery and recovery, many places are rediscovering resources long felt expended.

3. Supporting the local economy takes more than “Shop Local.”
Bank local, invest local, save local.

4. Self-employment continues to rise.
What a perfect environment to try something risky. Small towns allow for start ups to occur with minimal risk.

5. Ruralsourcing brings more high-tech to rural areas.
New term? You bet, versus global outsourcing, some companies are looking to rural communities and resources to provide those services.

6. Government cuts hurt.
Arts, literature, tourism, things that commonly were supported by government subsidies now need to be revisited.

7. Online doesn’t mean in front of a computer.
Mobile web, smart phones, the iPad and other devices have allowed for more flexibility in exchanging data, ideas and resources. This is NOT tied to sitting at home.

8. Online reviews make everyone a local.
Profound…

9. Rural broadband drives business development.
As the spread of web services across the heartland increases, so do opportunities to interact within a regional and global economy.

Let’s keep this conversation going….

Eric

Coopetition

April 3, 2011 Comments off

Yes, my spelling is correct.

The above is a term I heard recently, from of all places, a NASCAR race. Commentator Darrel Waltrip was commenting on how teams use “coopetition” when they draft other drives on the race track. Come to find out, Mr. Waltrip must read up on the trends found in business and economy.

Interesting, helping each other while still challenging the other to win.

I began using this term a few months ago to describe the era in which we are within for our region. Since that time I’ve started to research exactly what this concept means for me and the work I do. The term has been used in various forms since 1913. Gaining a bit more acceptance in 1944. The term quietly remained as a theoretical construct.

As you’ve seen posted here before, there are several themes we are dealing with here in the Cornfields of northwest Ohio. However, two stand out more so then the others. Namely, the redefinition of manufacturing and what that means for our regional economy, and the perceived loss of our young talented work force. Both of which have been covered in publication after publication. Great data and ideas…but…

Yes, the dreaded “…”, in other words, we have not yet been able to really to understand these changes well enough to implement ideas to bring the ideas to life.

Last Friday, Dr. Gee, The Ohio State University’s bow tie wearing president spoke at the regional OSU campus. His thoughts, the university system needs to create programs to keep our young people here. However, this is only one aspect of the conversation. We can build the road to travel, but it has to lead somewhere…I am not sure we are there yet.

But back to coopetition, its the over reaching idea of taking a regionalized approach to education and economic development.This requires a new approach, a change, and we all know how that can feel.

Charles Darwin said that: “It is not the strongest species that will survive, nor the most intelligent, but rather the ones most responsive to change. ”

Despite our fear of the unknown, we still must walk slowly toward this reality. If we help one another, yet maintain our own goals and desires, we will recreate our communities for our leaders of tomorrow.
Eric

The Midwest High Speed Rail Legacy

January 30, 2011 Comments off

With all the changes taking place in state government, the issue of the 3-C high speed rail corridor looks to be shelved once again. This is unfortunate, however, all along the misnomer of true “high speed” was an issue. Since the start up of this project would have used conventional passenger train cars and operated over freight railroad lines, the time savings and convenience may or may not have been apparent. The true project would have been to build an entirely separate infrastructure. After all, it has been done before here in Ohio.

Yes, Ohio was once home to a vast network of dedicated, high speed rail lines. It was known as the “Interurban”.

Below is a 1906 map of Ohio and the interurban lines that crisscrossed the state.

Impressive? Yes, and this was not even at the zenith of the systems development. After 1906, several hundred more miles of track were placed into service. The interurban were electric powered, high speed for there era (average running of 70 mph), frequent and customer centered. Not only were they clean and “green”, but they offered services unheard of at that time, such as same day delivery of goods and services.

The interurban lines tied together not the big cities, but the small towns and allowed commerce to take place on a micro level. This is a departure from what we think of in terms of high speed rail, major city to major city being the norm. The small electrically powered cars could accelerate much more quickly than long lumbering steam trains, so they could make many more frequent stops and still maintain a reasonable schedule. This flexibility allowed farmers living along the tracks, or merchants in small towns the ability to get on or off just about anywhere, rather than at stations spaced several miles apart. Also, most interurban lines scheduled trains every hour, with a few extra runs during busy periods. This much improved frequency, with many more stops, decent speed, and somewhat lower fares than mainline railroads (about 1/2 to 2/3 the cost for the same distance) allowed many more people to travel who couldn’t before. It was finally possible to a farmer’s wife or the small town family to take a trip into the big city for some shopping or to go to the theater and not have to spend the night in a hotel. Merchants and salesmen could travel between many more towns than before, and deliveries of express freight and milk could be made in a few hours.

The interurban would enter a small town and normally run up the main street, having a  “car stop” at the local hotel, store front or other business that was the designated location. The convenience factor was outstanding, the ability to tie together the region unprecedented.

The privately owned companies received no subsidies or stipends from the communities. Revenue was generated by fare and parcel post costs. Since these revenues were precarious, and since the industry was never particularly profitable to begin with, it didn’t take much of a drop in passenger traffic to send a company into receivership. Many companies never paid dividends on their stock and were saddled with debt throughout their whole existence. Without government subsidy (as found in the fledgling highway construction and auto industries at that time), the system faced a uncertain future.

So what happened?

With the growth of car travel, there was increasing pressure in the 1920s and 30s to get the rails off the roads. Towns began to see the tracks in their streets as a nuisance, especially as the traction companies began deferring maintenance of the road between their rails as required by franchise agreements. Out in the country, state and county governments tried to close down some of the interurbans so they could use their right-of-way to widen the adjacent roads. There was also growing investment in electric utilities, and many interurbans were bought out by syndicates and investors whose primary interest was in the electrical infrastructure, not the railroad.

The Great Depression was the final blow and after the late 1930’s, most lines were ripped up and their right of ways turned into new road ways. The interurban cars were scrapped and the electric substations re-purposed. Their impact on our region was substantial and profound, yet, their existence short lived. One can only wonder the “what if”…

Today, one can still find the remains of this interurban system. For example, State Route 65 between Columbus Grove and Ottawa, Ohio, was built on the right of way of the Cincinnati and Lake Erie. Careful observers can find bridge abutments, substations and even power lines of these transportation marvels.

Its often said that what was once old is new again and this idea holds true for high speed rail.

Eric

Where has all the innovation gone?

November 5, 2010 Comments off

In 1925, something very peculiar rolled out of the gate at the Lima Locomotive Works in Lima, Ohio.  (ED- For those of you who may not know, Lima was once home to one of the worlds largest manufactures of steam locomotives. The sprawling Lima Locomotive Works, known to the community as the “Loco”, was Lima’s calling card to the world.) Something about this steam locomotive caught the eyes of the yard crew assigned to move this locomotive to its first testing grounds,  the hilly Albany Division of the New York Central Railroad.

The engine was known as the A-1.  This was the prototype of what became known as Lima “Superpower” locomotives. With radical redesign of basic elements of steam locomotives at the time, this engine generated 69, 400 lbs of tractive effort (the “pull” if you will). Considering the size of the the locomotive, this was a 33% increase in power. This was a remarkable achievement.

Simply put, Lima broke the mold and began a new era in railroad technology…and just in time too…for the world was hurtling toward WWII and the demand on the railroads would be at its zenith.

Here is an example of Superpower in action, the Nickle Plate Road steam locomotive, 765, thunders through the Cuyahoga Valley on a recent excursion.

“Breaking the mold”…a term that implies chucking the “old way” and doing something new, rethinking the problem, rediscovering the thrill of creativity. Innovation.

Where have all the innovation (and innovators) gone?  The process for small business development, the loans, the paper work, makes it nearly impossible for people to implement a new idea. In an era of fear (and this is not fear mongering, this is fact if you listen to anyone in business and industry), stepping out of the box could lead to disastrous results.

I am not content with this paradigm. In our little corner of the globe, as I’ve mentioned before, our personal skill sets and brain power has a great amount of depth. We are surrounded by educational institutions, infrastructure, space, and low tax rates…plus, people WANT to work and want to see change (believe it or not).

These are all dots in a connect the dots picture. A picture of opportunity that is generated by those of us in this region, not by a program from Columbus or Washington.

Pencils and crayons anyone?

Eric

Admitting the Mistakes- Now what will change?

September 30, 2010 Comments off

Its bold to see a Governor admit such things prior to an election and the honest truth is sometimes hard to swallow. However, notice no plan was proposed for change. This is from the Toledo Blade.

Strickland, Fisher say Ohio erred in saving jobs
Leaders: State could’ve acted faster

Ohio Governor Ted Strickland said the state Department of Development should move faster to keep factories from closing.
( THE BLADE )

By JOE VARDON
BLADE PROJECTS EDITOR
Ohio’s governor and lieutenant governor both said Tuesday that the state Department of Development should move faster to keep factories from closing and relocating to other states.

But Gov. Ted Strickland told The Blade that if keeping a factory from shutting its doors and shifting to Indiana, Tennessee, or elsewhere means outbidding those states with financial incentives, Ohio should engage in that bidding war only if it “is in the long-term interests of the state.” Yesterday the Blade concluded its three-day investigative series, Shut Down & Shipped Out, which revealed that about 140 factories with 20 or more employees have closed in northwest Ohio dating back to 2000, totaling about 18,000 lost jobs. At least 52 companies relocated work elsewhere within the United States, and 37 shifted work to another country.

In the last two years, with the country in the grip of a deep national recession, northwest Ohio lost at least 15 factories with 2,200 employees to other states — including four factories to Indiana. At least 32 factories closed overall during that time frame, totaling about 3,700 lost jobs, in the 18-county region around Toledo.

John Kasich, the Republican gubernatorial challenger in Ohio who currently leads Governor Strickland in the polls, said The Blade’s findings illustrate the chief problem facing the state.

“We’re too slow, we’re not ahead of the game, and we’re losing jobs to other states that are,” Mr. Kasich said. “People try to blame this all on the national economy. Some states are winning; we are losing.”

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DAY 1: Fostoria endures fallout from string of plant closings

DAY 2: Archbold workers fell victim to corporate cleaver

DAY 2: Four year after American Lincoln plant closed, former employees struggle to recover

DAY 3: Many local factories still feel NAFTA’s sting

DAY 3: Ohio, Michigan outpace nation in increase of exports

DAY 3: Retraining programs often don’t lead to better jobs or pay

FACTORY SEARCH:
Search through our database of closed factories to see how many jobs were lost and where they went.

SHARE YOUR STORY:
Have you been affected by factory closings? Share your story here

Much of the argument in Ohio’s highest-profile political races this fall, between
Governor Strickland and Mr. Kasich and the U.S. Senate race between Republican Rob Portman and Democratic Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, is over how Ohio conducts economic development.

Mr. Kasich has said he would replace the Ohio Department of Development, which has 408 employees and a $1.15 billion budget, with a private, nonprofit corporation governed by a 12-member board — a move Mr. Strickland said would be dangerous and irresponsible.

The department was accused by some northwest Ohio mayors of being nonresponsive or too slow to piece together incentives packages to keep factories from moving across state lines.

Mitch Roob, Indiana’s secretary of commerce, who oversees the state’s 65-employee, $37 million economic development operation, said he has won business from Ohio by the speed with which he can construct an incentives package for a factory considering a move.

Governor Strickland said the state’s development department should be “faster and more efficient,” but the governor also said it is necessary for Ohio officials to use caution before approving incentives for companies.

“If we were able or willing to give whatever resources were necessary to compete, we would never lose a competition,” Mr. Strickland said.

“But we’ve got a responsibility to the citizens of our state and to our state. And I think we do really well.”

Governor Strickland and Mr. Fisher, who ran the Ohio Department of Development from 2007 to February, 2009, both said the state had acted quickly and used incentives to attract and retain jobs on numerous occasions — including some in northwest Ohio.

On Sunday The Blade reported that since 2007, Ohio development officials played a role in the retention of Cooper Tire & Rubber in Findlay, Schindler Elevator in suburban Toledo, Chase Brass and Copper in Williams County, and the recruitment of a Whirlpool Corp. plant to Ottawa, Ohio — saving about 1,500 jobs.

“I want every mayor in the state to know that we’ve always had an open-door policy where a mayor can call me or the governor directly if it’s necessary to intercede,” said Mr. Fisher, who according to polling trails Mr. Portman in the race to succeed Republican U.S. Sen. George Voinovich. “Any time the governor or I become aware [of a potential business leaving Ohio], we intercede immediately.”

But Mr. Fisher also distanced himself from the development department he used to run, saying Ohio should lean more toward speed than caution when offering companies incentives packages.

In three recent cases of plants closing or massively downsizing in northwest Ohio and shifting work to Indiana, those companies were offered about $4 million in incentives to relocate. Ohio did not make a counteroffer in any of those cases.

Ohio was criticized by mayors whose cities lost those factories for having a complicated, drawn-out process for approving incentives in which outside boards and commissions must study incentive applications before giving the go-ahead.

“A state that responds fast but throws money at the problem may be fast, but is irresponsible with the spending of the taxpayers’ money,” Mr. Fisher said. “We believe you have to have a healthy balance between speed and making sure it’s the best use of the taxpayers’ dollar.”

Still, Mr. Fisher said he would like Ohio to speed up its approval process. When asked why the state’s process isn’t fast enough for him, given that he was in charge of the development department for two years, Mr. Fisher said: “There are still many people who believe the most important thing is to protect the expenditure of taxpayers’ money and that we always have to err on the side of caution to make sure that we’re not throwing money at a company unnecessarily.”

Mr. Portman, Mr. Fisher’s opponent, did not respond directly to The Blade. But Portman campaign spokesman Jessica Towhey said “manufacturers and other businesses clearly feel that the state is making it harder, not easier, for them to grow and create jobs here in Ohio.”

Although some economic and business-cost factors seem to favor Indiana, there are others that suggest Ohio is competitive with its neighbor.

Indiana’s unemployment rate in August was a hair higher than Ohio’s (10.2 percent in Indiana compared to Ohio’s 10.1 percent), but Indiana gained about 40,000 jobs since August, 2009. Ohio gained about 7,300 jobs since August, 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average salary for manufacturing employees in Ohio was less than in Indiana in 2009 ($43,011 in Ohio, $45,643 in Indiana), but electricity costs (6.19 cents per kilowatt hour for industrial users in Ohio versus 5.71 cents in Indiana) and average worker compensation rates ($3.37 per $100 of payroll in Ohio and $2.22 in Indiana) favor Indiana.

Mr. Fisher and Mr. Strickland both said investments made by the Strickland administration in alternative energy research, development, and manufacturing will foster an economic rebirth in Ohio. They said those investments — including millions of dollars poured into Toledo for solar panels — would have made more of an impact already if not for the near collapse of the U.S. economy at the end of 2008.

“I don’t pretend to have solved all the problems,” Governor Strickland said. “But I do think that even in the most difficult economic circumstances, challenges unlike anything we’ve experienced in many, many decades, my administration has worked to lay a solid foundation for future growth going forward.”

Contact Joe Vardon at:jvardon@theblade.comor 419-724-6559.

A Bear in the Market

July 12, 2010 Comments off

A very interesting  chart with the Bear Markets from the past few years. Is the worst over? Not so sure…but the trend may turn around.

At moments like this, I like to think back to Monty Python’s Life of Brian and the closing song:

“Always look on the bright side of life…”

Eric

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