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Q&A: Steven Weathers gives an inside look at the future of northwest Ohio

Steve Weathers, President and CEO of the Regional Growth Partnership. Photos | Ben French
Steve Weathers, President and CEO of the Regional Growth Partnership. Photos | Ben French

Steven Weathers, president and CEO of the Regional Growth Partnership, knows that the automotive industry isn't likely to come back to northwest Ohio anytime soon and he's OK with that. He is focused on increasing employment and growth in RGP's pipeline of growing companies. Just last year, 1,700 jobs were created at 29 different companies (not even including technology firms) with investments totaling more than $300 million. Weathers, a 49-year-old transplant of Southern California, knows what it's like to transform an economy. He's done it before. Twice. Once in San Diego, Calif. and once in Tucson, Ariz., where he held economic development positions in both cities. hiVelocity caught up with Weathers to learn how he's helping to shake off some of the rust from Toledo's economy.

Without the staple of the automotive industry, what is the new economic face of Northwest Ohio?

The new economic face is alternative energy, biotechnology, advanced manufacturing and materials and electronics. We have 65 new innovative technology companies started with support of the Third Frontier. Of those, none are in the automotive business.

How would you compare your effort in San Diego in turning around that economy to what's happening in Toledo now?

We're probably about 15 to 20 years behind what we did in San Diego. San Diego was a region based on tourism, real estate development and defense. With a downturn and high unemployment, San Diego was suffering in the late-1980s. There is almost a parallel dynamic to what we're doing here in Northwest Ohio. San Diego converted its economy out of necessity in 1990, and we're trying save our economy (in Toledo) in 2010. In 1990, there were 60 biotech companies in San Diego. Today, there are well over 1,000. In Northwest Ohio, we have 70 biotech companies the biotech industry has been one of our biggest areas of growth. If I laid the numbers out on a board you would see so many similarities. The key to this area is diversifying our economic base.

What are some of Toledo's new strengths?

There's a diverse base of companies starting to grow here. I always talk about economic development is a lot like human evolution. We're changing. Without the base of the glass industry in Toledo there wouldn't be a solar industry the main material for the solar industry is glass. It's kind of a logical thing. There are a lot of other ancillary businesses that come with solar industry. There are assemblers installers, framers, inverter companies and suppliers of chemicals.

There are many companies in RGP's portfolio, but what's the company that has you excited at this moment?

Right now, we're very excited about the rail company CSX. They are building their largest intermodal transportation hub in North Baltimore about 30 minutes from here. It's going to be their epicenter for intermodal transportation in the Midwest their Midwest headquarters. There will be hundreds of jobs, and it could turn into thousands of jobs, from what they've said.

A lot of the new jobs in Northwest Ohio are highly skilled. How much does education play a role in the success of growing Toledo's economy?

Education plays a big role anywhere from community college to applied research institutions. We engage the University of Toledo, Bowling Green State University, University of Findlay, Owens Community College, Terra Community College and Northwest State Community College. They all bring different skill sets. The idea is we're always trying to help you grow you're company. We don't want you to be at the back of the boat.

Is Toledo on the right track?

We have a long way to go, but we're moving in the right direction. The goal is to get to 100 new companies. We've seen $41 million capital dollars come here because of a new economic value that we're creating. Of 65 companies we've started, 21 have come from outside of the state of Ohio. They're coming from California, New York, Boston, Connecticut and Chicago. One of the unintended consequences from the Third Frontier is that companies are coming from outside the state to do business here. That's been extremely positive.

If you had a crystal ball, what would it say about the future of Toledo? Let's say five years in the future.

I think you'll find in five years, people will say 'Wow, we've made great progress.' In five years, we're going to have greater venture capital, a diversifying economic base, new opportunities and we'll continue to have new employment. It's a marathon without an end. We look back and learn lessons, but we don't get depressed when stuff happens. Lay-offs are the stroke of a pen. If you want to hire people, that's a six-month process. We need move forward with job creation. That's never-ending battle.

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