Fostering Fairfield County

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

For years, U.S. Route 33 in Fairfield County was seen as more of a throughway than a destination-a means to get to Lancaster, Athens or some point farther south. However, recent improvements to Route 33 have provided an unprecedented new opportunity to attract new business, and jobs, to the area.

Route 33 cuts diagonally through Fairfield County between Columbus and Athens, passing through or near Canal Winchester, Pickerington, Violet Township, Bloom Township, Greenfield Township and Lancaster. It's not an interstate-many intersections with traffic lights dot its path-but it is now a four-lane divided highway with bypasses around Lancaster and, farther southeast, Nelsonville.

With construction complete, municipalities along the route can now tout being within a 10-hour truck drive of more than 50 percent of the U.S. and Canadian populations, as well as 61 percent of the U.S. manufacturing capacity. It's a perfect sound bite that the Fairfield 33 Development Alliance wants to capitalize on.

The nonprofit public-private group started in 2006 to tackle area transportation issues. Two years later, it widened its focus to marketing development and has been working to attract new business to the county ever since. The alliance has 24 investors, both municipal and corporate, at five contribution tiers ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 annually. With a $135,000 budget, alliance members have developed promotional materials, traveled to industry shows and made sales pitches to hundreds of companies. The alliance holds monthly meetings to review efforts and plan strategies.

Current members are: David Gallimore and Linda Kauffman of the Lancaster Office of Economic Development; R. Michael Pettit of the city of Lancaster; Joseph Henderson, development services director of Pickerington; Helen Mayle of the Pickerington Area Chamber of Commerce; Lucas Haire, development director of Canal Winchester; Amanda Lemke of the Canal Winchester Chamber of Commerce; Joy Davis, Violet Township economic development specialist; and Travis Markwood of the Lancaster/Fairfield County Chamber of Commerce.

Shane Farnsworth served as administrator of the alliance until leaving in October to become economic development administrator for Columbus. Alliance members hope to fill the position by the end of the year.

Growth Spurt

With a population of 146,156, Fairfield County is the fourth-fastest-growing county in Ohio, having grown 19.1 percent between 2000 and 2010. Only Delaware, Warren, and Union counties boast higher percentages.

Violet Township, which includes the city of Pickerington, now has a population of 38,572, an increase of 43 percent since 2000. That makes it as big as Lancaster, whose 2010 census count was 38,780. Lancaster's development is growing, too, adding 1 million square feet of retail space since 2007. More than 3,000 businesses already operate in the county.

Alliance members cite a long list of corridor benefits. Accessibility to major transportation routes and cargo service at Rickenbacker International Airport. Land costs averaging 30 percent less than other Central Ohio locations. Construction costs 5 percent lower than the national average. Low utility costs. Abundant natural resources and water. A local workforce of nearly 270,000. An extensive network of support services. Low-interest loans and financing programs from local, state and national agencies. Community Reinvestment Area, Enterprise Zone and Foreign Trade Zone tax incentives. "They are tools in the toolbox," Farnsworth says.

To date, the alliance's biggest accomplishment has been landing U.S. Corrugated Inc., a packaging producer headquartered in Newark, N.J. In 2009, the company built a 314,000-square-foot plant in Lancaster-the largest of its 18 facilities. Company officials cited the land, available amenities and support of the alliance for their decision to build a local plant.

The company was given a 15-year, 100 percent real property tax abatement on its $10 million building (estimated total value: $1.9 million), as well as a 10-year contract with Lancaster Municipal Gas for below-market prices on natural gas. The city stands to gain $72,750 per year in income tax revenue, based on 125 employees averaging $16 per hour.

U.S. Corrugated general manager Rick Morgan says the plant currently employs 120 workers in production and sales and generates more than 1 billion feet of corrugated product yearly. He calls Route 33 "our lifeline." All of the plant's output is trucked to various destinations.

More recently, SRI Ohio, a glass decorating company, opened in Lancaster in spring 2010; in June, it moved to a 60,000-square-foot building to accommodate increased production.

Jean-Charles Briere, president of the Canada-based company, says location was central to the decision to open the facility. "There are many glass factories within 300 miles," he says. SRI Ohio now has 50 employees and intends to hire 15 more. The company received a 15-year, 100 percent tax abatement on improvements above $250,000.

Seeking Prospects

Alliance members are most interested in attracting companies that employ 50 to 250 workers. "Smaller companies," Davis says, "help to diversify communities."

One such company is Hubbard Enterprises of Lancaster. The company builds heavy-duty workover rigs and portable drilling rigs for the oil and gas industry. The company had a second location in Okemah, Okla., but closed it in May to consolidate operations in Lancaster.

Mike Hubbard, who started the company in 1983, says management found the current facility without help from the alliance or tax incentives from the city. "We did it on our own," Hubbard says. The company has 25 employees.

The need for economic development in Fairfield County is readily apparent to local officials. According to the Lancaster Economic Development Marketing Plan, "Over 50 percent of Fairfield County's 60,000 workforce travel to Franklin and other surrounding counties for better employment opportunities each day."

The alliance is working to staunch that flow. "I'd like to see people stay here," Davis says. "I want the traffic to flow eastbound [from Columbus]."

While Lancaster has attracted the lion's share of the new business in the corridor, it hasn't claimed all the growth for itself. "Canal Winchester and Pickerington have both had some success in recent years," Markwood says. Diley Ridge Medical Center in Canal Winchester is a joint facility of Mount Carmel Health System and Fairfield Medical Center, and OhioHealth has purchased land in Pickerington it intends to develop.

But making deals happen isn't easy, especially when the commercial real estate and construction sectors are still smarting from the recession. The alliance approaches the challenge by collecting leads, trying to advance them to "suspects" through talks with company officials and then targeting them as "prospects," a status that includes a visit to the region. As of mid-October, the alliance had identified more than 200 leads year-to-date.

When a lead reaches the prospect level, alliance developers kick into high gear, putting together a comprehensive site-certification study of the land conditions, transportation, power, water, labor availability and tax incentives. At that point, many prospects fall through. As Kauffman puts it, "When the light shines, the gremlins come." One gremlin can put the kibosh on the deal.

Case in point: The alliance's third quarter Investor Relations Report discusses a proposal for an India-based manufacturer to build a new plant employing 260 workers in Lancaster. Although "Ohio was better logistically," Kentucky's power costs were lower. The plant landed on the other side of the Ohio River.

Some shovel-ready economic development opportunities are, for now, dormant. Sycamore Crossing in Violet Township is a 60-acre industrial park and 27-acre office condominium site with U.S. 33 running along its southern flank. John McGory, a project partner, says it has yet to gain a tenant five years after zoning approval. "We had eight or nine people interested at the start," he says. Then the recession hit.

Sycamore Crossing "has all the potential when the economy comes back," McGory says. "It's one of the prime locations in Ohio. The township put a lot of money in the ground with sewer and water lines, but hasn't gotten anything back yet."

Spreading the Word

There are other hurdles to getting new businesses and expanding existing ones. Doug Cronin, president of NFocus Consulting, a Lancaster software development and data processing company that serves direct mail clients, says it's hard for him to find qualified employees locally. NFocus, established in 1989, needs software developers and computer programmers. "Lancaster is trying to emerge out of a blue-collar environment," he says. "It tends to slide back into that."

Alliance members say the blue-collar environment is waning. But that phenomenon has plusses and minuses. Members say local educational institutions haven't kept up training programs for shop-type trades; as a result, many businesses seeking workers with those skills are hard-pressed to find them-even though the starting salary for a welder can reach $50,000.

The alliance continues to promote the corridor, criss-crossing the country to meet company executives, attend trade conferences and industry conventions, and make presentations. "There's no substitution for it," says Kenny McDonald, chief economic officer of Columbus 2020, a regional public-private partnership formed to advance the economic development of an 11-county region. "You've got to get out and make the investment of time and energy."

McDonald gives the alliance, an economic development partner of Columbus 2020, credit for creating a common platform for outreach and actively pursuing leads. Next year, members anticipate traveling abroad to reach more international companies. "Most trips are funded fully by the alliance; however, there are trips that we partner on through our Columbus 2020 membership," Markwood says.

Other alliance expenses cover conference sponsorships, inbound visits, investor relations, media planning, partnerships, site certifications, site-specific marketing and website costs. The alliance has upgraded its website to provide improved navigation, industry-specific information, enhanced testimonials, better connectivity for developers, more local photographs, an easy-to-find property search and a streamlined newsletter.

"Our group is unique in that we have worked closely together for the past five years, sharing resources, funding and knowledge. It's working well," Haire says.

"There are issues we may disagree on. But we can all agree on economic development, on how we can grow and improve Fairfield County," Farnsworth says.

Six years after the alliance was formed, Davis says the hard work is beginning to pay off. "Companies have started calling us," she says. "We aren't making as many cold calls."

McDonald says that as economic development officials continue to get the word out, the whole region will benefit. "Our biggest obstacle is we're too shy about who we are. Our greatest struggle is to get on the list and get recognized," he says. "Company leaders don't know the aggregate story. We've got an unbelievable story to tell."

Dennis Read is a freelance writer.

printed from the December 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.