Leaving a legacy

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

After 24 years working with Seneca Industrial and Economic Development Corp., Rich Focht is retiring as CEO. For more than two decades, Focht has seen the city move from relying on outside businesses investing in Tiffin to local businesses thriving in the economy.

Focht did not begin his career in economic development until after working as a contractor. He said his experiences working as a contractor helped with his work with SIEDC and helped to spark one of the first major projects he worked on with the organization.

"One of the things I saw when I was in business with my dad as contractors," he said. "We tried to develop some land for a small business park out on the south end of town, and I saw firsthand that the county and the city, going back 30-plus years, had no plan for economic development."

Focht said when businesses came to Tiffin, the city had nowhere to place them. He said he also saw the city and the county did not have much interest in helping with development.

"I saw there was a problem here, and I swore then to myself, if I ever had the opportunity to do something about it, I was going to," he said.

Focht found his first opportunity by working as city administrator under Mayor David Martien. After several months in office, Focht said Martien came to him for ideas on how to create more jobs in Tiffin. Focht suggested subdividing land north of town and adding infrastructure in order to provide a location for potential businesses.

He said the city also had an advantage investing in the parks, since even after selling the land, the city would continue collecting taxes on the lot.

"They can sell it at their own cost and still make money in the long term on the business that came in there," he said.

After development of the land, it became NorthStar Industrial Park. Eventually, three industrial parks were developed during Focht's tenure as CEO.

Focht said improving and developing the economy of the city was something he always wanted to focus on, and when the opportunity came to work as the head of SIEDC, he took it.

"It was an opportunity," he said. "It was something in the back of my mind that I always wanted to do."

He said the economic improvements he helped to make began to promote a change in the attitude of the city.

"Up until that point, we've always relied on outside investors to come in here and risk their capital on us," Focht said. "We wondered why things weren't changing, why they weren't improving. Why should somebody risk their capital on us when we're not willing to risk it on ourselves?"

Among many of the projects that Focht took on as CEO, he said there were several he remembered as being the most difficult and the most rewarding. Focht said in his time with SIEDC, he was most proud of the rehabilitation of the Shawhan Hotel and the building of the Welcome to Tiffin signs.

Focht said, 10 years ago, areas such as the Ames building, the old Walmart building and the old Kroger building were vacant. Now, organizations such as North Central Ohio Educational Service Center and businesses such as Rural King have taken over the

vacant areas and provided jobs for the city.

He said the city had to provide the infrastructure to allow for those businesses to come into town and take the risk with city funds.

"When you come in today, it's a whole different perspective," he said. "It's because the city took the risk, made the investment to extend infrastructure out to US 224. It allowed the hospital to be built, and then they built the cut-through."

He said SIEDC has worked on the downtown area, too, including organizing the financing needed to pay for a downtown study. Focht said the next step was to build more of the downtown and connect to the colleges.

With that marketing, Focht said, he thought Tiffin could become more of a destination.

"We're really blessed around here with what we have to offer," he said. "The fact that we've got these two universities, that's a huge opportunity for the community."

Among the projects and individuals he worked with, he said his relationship with Director of Development Karen Bowers was pivotal to SIEDC's success. Focht said since she was there six months longer than he had, they have had nearly 25 years to work together on Tiffin's development.

"I think it's really unique that neither one of us had any training in what we do," he said. "In some respects, we've learned it together. I couldn't have picked someone better to work with than her."

Because both were born and raised in Tiffin, he said they felt compelled to work even harder to promote the city.

"We took it really personally when we had some of these issues and challenges," he said. "It made it harder for us to quit because you wanted to see the results and wanted to be a part of the things that were happening."

Focht said although he is leaving the organization, he is excited for the future of it and Tiffin.

He said he knew David Zak, his successor, and has worked with him in the past.

"He's going to do a great job for us," he said. "I'm really happy about that."

He is also optimistic about the merger with Tiffin Tomorrow. He said with Seneca Regional Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Services President and CEO John Detwiler's expertise in working with retail and planning events, SIEDC's ability to put projects together and Tiffin Tomorrow's focus on the downtown area, it would be a step in the right direction for Tiffin.

"I see a lot of opportunities here for some leveraged projects and growth that is going to develop a downtown that we're all going to be proud of," he said. "We're getting everything back here under one roof."

In his 24 years, Focht said he was most proud of changing the perception of the city.

"We got away from being victims, and now we've got a plan in place. I think people realize that you can do something about what happens in the future if you work hard and plan and do your part," he said. "I think we've convinced people of that. We've seen a lot of changes around here as a result of people working together. If you're willing to take calculated risks, invest in yourself and believe in yourself, there's good things that will happen. We're proof of that."