Cincinnati Partnership driving results, former director says

Cincinnati USA Partnership’s new strategy of driving local job growth by focusing on key industries is delivering results despite concerns raised by local government leaders over the agency’s communications, staffing and responsibilities, said Denyse Ferguson, the Partnership’s former executive director.

Cincinnati USA Partnership for Economic Development is a private nonprofit agency responsible for leading the region’s business attraction and retention activities. It is the economic development arm of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. The Partnership heads development activities across the 15-county, three-state Cincinnati metropolitan area, including Butler and Warren counties.

In her first interview since resigning from the region’s largest economic development agency, Ferguson acknowledged the Partnership’s transition to becoming the regional office of JobsOhio in 2011 was a bumpy one. However, she said progress is being made in terms of results and better relationships with community partners.

“In my opinion, there’s one thing that matters and that’s the results,” Ferguson said.

“If you go back and look at the data over the last two years while I was there, on all key metrics, the Partnership increased its performance from 100 to 300 percent on jobs, on capital investment, on projects and so on,” she said.

The primary purpose of the new strategy put in place in 2012 was to “change the growth trajectory — more projects, more jobs, more capital investment and year-over-year, we delivered significant increases on all those things,” she said.

Goals set for 2013 were to close 38 business projects generating 3,100 new jobs and $212 million in capital investment in greater Cincinnati, according to the Partnership.

As of the end of September, the Partnership says it has landed commitments from companies to create 2,547 new jobs. Thirty-eight business projects have closed with companies committing to make $331 million in new capital investment in the area such as Festo Americas LLC’s new $51 million Regional Service Center in Mason; and auto supplier Valeo Climate Control’s $14 million plant expansion in Hamilton.

Figures include leads the Partnership generates on its own, as well as through JobsOhio.

A lot of change to digest

Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s administration established the nonprofit JobsOhio in 2011 to lead the state’s job creation efforts. Cincinnati USA Partnership was named later that year one of six regional JobsOhio Network partners statewide. As such, it is the go-between for local jurisdictions and JobsOhio officials in Columbus for crafting business deals.

The private JobsOhio replaced economic development activities of the public Ohio Department of Development, since renamed Ohio Development Services Agency.

The Partnership always marketed and promoted the Cincinnati region to businesses. But local governments working to land business projects used to be able to work with regional state representatives to close a deal, in addition to the Partnership.

However, when JobsOhio formed, the state Department of Development’s regional role shifted to the Partnership.

Meanwhile, the Partnership was in the process of a “strategic overhaul” before it was named a regional office of JobsOhio, Ferguson and chamber executives said. The new strategy would have been put in place regardless of JobsOhio, they said.

The strategy introduced last year focused efforts on industry clusters with the greatest potential for significant job growth, and put increased focus on retaining existing businesses that create the most jobs. The industries identified for growth are: biohealth; consumer products and brand development; advanced manufacturing; advanced energy; food processing and agriculture; and finance, insurance and information technology.

“The difference is not just stating industries where you have girth and where you have a strong presence, but really restructuring how you function around those industries, which was the primary part of strategic change at the Partnership,” Ferguson said. “The key is truly engaging leadership from your industry clusters.”

In a story published Oct. 6, this newspaper revealed economic development directors in Butler, Clermont, Hamilton and Warren counties became frustrated with the Partnership because they weren’t getting the job-generating leads and attention from the agency that they used to before JobsOhio entered the picture. That’s a major problem when they are trying to attract new businesses and jobs to their jurisdictions.

Concerns were also expressed about a Partnership staff restructuring.

Economic development is a relationship business and trust takes time to build, Ferguson said. The launch of entirely new strategies on the state and regional levels and the “going-in” expectation that Partnership staff would change to work with the new strategy is a lot of change to digest at once, she said.

“Had the Partnership launched its strategic change, cluster-based economic development, Grow Your Own, all those things, in absence of the state changing, meaning the local communities still had access to the state directly, would that probably have been slightly easier and caused less anxiety? Probably so, but hard to say looking in hindsight,” she said.

“All of that strategic change, when at the same time the communities then had to go through this Partnership with a new strategy, with all new players, to access the state when they used to go on directly, there’s your source,” she said.

“I think the key now really is we’ve come through it, there is a much stronger relationship with our communities. There are incredible efforts on the part of the Partnership team to meet with everyone, to understand concerns, to understand each particular community, what their needs are, to be totally transparent about information.”

Ferguson, who joined the chamber in 2011, submitted her resignation in August and stopped working earlier this month.

She resigned even though progress was being made because things got to the point that she couldn’t continue to drive the same or better results. She did not elaborate what those things were.

“The bottom line is I am very passionate about group efforts and results and driving dramatic change in growth. We were tracking very, very well on that and working on all those other issues,” she said.

“Ultimately, there were many other things going on at the broader chamber level that I felt were beginning to inhibit my ability to deliver results and drive results the way that I really felt was necessary, and quite honestly, the way that I felt I had committed to the community and our investors that I would do,” she said.

Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber spokesman Lance Barry said the chamber doesn’t comment on former employees when asked for a response.

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