Call it a simple question. Or call it a concern.
Since the April announcement that longtime Cleveland-based economic development professional Steve Millard would take over as president and CEO of the Greater Akron Chamber, chairman Marc Merklin has fielded inquires about whether his board’s choice of leadership signals a move toward greater regionalism. The underlying issue — a persistent worry among some — is that the Rubber City’s identity could be at stake.
“If we were hiring someone from Florida or Illinois, no one would ask, ‘Are you are getting closer, or too close, to Florida or Illinois?’ ” Merklin said. “The fact that Steve is from the area does not in any way detract that he is all in. He is not here to represent Cleveland. He is here to represent Akron and the Greater Akron area.
“And the fact that he already knows the region is a plus, not a minus.”
Millard assumed his new role on June 4, capping a yearlong executive pursuit by the Greater Akron Chamber after the unexpected resignation of Dan Colantone, who had led the organization for 17 years. Merklin said that immediately following Colantone’s departure in May 2017, the board retained former Green Mayor Dick Norton as interim president to steer the ship while a committee that Merklin chaired took the time to “conduct a thorough search.”
“We wanted a different kind of leadership, a different approach,” the managing partner at Brouse McDowell said.
According to Merklin, even before the leadership shakeup, there was a groundswell of opinion — both internally and externally — that the chamber needed to work more collaboratively with other economic development entities in the area, including colleges, which play a part in workforce development; civic institutions; and regional organizations like Team NEO, Magnet and JobsOhio. By early 2017, the Akron Chamber already had begun to study how it could propel economic development forward via more cohesive connections with the Akron mayor and Summit County executive offices.
“It’s not enough to just say we want to work on economic development,” Merklin said. “How do we get things to happen?”
Millard steps in as the study is coming to a close, Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan said, just in time for the former Council of Smaller Enterprises (COSE) and Greater Cleveland Partnership (GCP) executive to put his imprint on forthcoming recommendations.
Horrigan said the timing of the chamber’s leadership transition is significant for another reason. The mayor noted he’s been in office for less than three years, Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro was elected November 2016, and other key leadership changes — not the least of which is the University of Akron’s search for a permanent new president — are imminent.
It’s an unprecedented opportunity to “push the reset button,” Horrigan said, on “what our pitch is to companies, how we sell the Greater Akron region, how we get people to invest here.”
“I think that everybody knows Akron needs to do more to grow,” Millard said in an interview a week after settling into his new office.
It was the city and its stakeholders’ commitment to addressing the challenge that drew him south.
“There is an amazing amount of change happening down here,” Millard said. “In terms of key institutions, leadership has changed over the last three years, and there is a lot of new development, innovation and entrepreneurism.”
Millard began his career in supply chain consulting, but in 1997 the Mantua resident took a job with the Greater Cleveland Growth Association to escape “the day-to-day travel of the consulting world.”
“I thought it would be a like a two-year gig,” he said. “I just happened to enjoy the work and things changed.”
In 1998, COSE, the small business division of the Growth Association, tapped Millard to be its executive director. He kept that role in 2004 when the Growth Association and its affiliates merged with Cleveland Tomorrow and the Greater Cleveland Roundtable to form GCP.
GCP CEO Joe Roman said Millard has been instrumental in building that organization and has emerged over the past two decades as “probably the most respected small business advocate in the chamber world.”
Horrigan said he thinks small and midsize businesses are the key to fueling growth in Greater Akron. Millard’s small business acumen will be a huge asset to Akron, the mayor added. Like Merklin, Horrigan sees Millard’s regional background as an asset.
Millard knows all of the players in the Northeast Ohio business ecosystem, Horrigan said. He understands the issues and challenges they face. He’s demonstrated an ability to come up with solutions and programs, not only for small companies like those in COSE, but the larger constituents served by GCP.
“I think we need to take advantage of all of the assets in the region and not just act as Cleveland or Akron, but as Northeast Ohio,” Horrigan said. “Now, obviously, I will take an Akron-first attitude, because I think we offer some unique things here.”
Millard understands the ambiguity. While he is sensitive to the fact that some might think of it as a tightrope walk to balance the fragile development needs of Akron against the strength that can be derived from broader regional promotion, Millard doesn’t see it that way.
Northeast Ohio drives more than 45% of the state’s economy, he said.
“Yet, each of the individual metro areas — Cleveland, Akron, Youngtown, Canton, Lorain — these are all important areas that have their own sets of relationships and ecosystems, too,” he said. “So I think we have to take the best of both worlds.”
In his role at Akron Chamber, Millard said, “I will unabashedly try to find a way to access and use resources that exist broadly in Northeast Ohio to the benefit of the companies that we work with in Summit, Portage and Medina Counties.”
Such talk is music to at least one Summit County stakeholder.
Sue Lacy, president of ConxusNEO, the county’s workforce development agency, is encouraged that Millard’s collaborative spirit aligns well with the work already underway.
“It’s a new day in Akron,” Lacy said, “one that we can all look forward to.”
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Stringer, Judy. (2018, July 1). New Akron chamber chief Steve Millard aims to foster collaboration in Akron, beyond. Crain’s Cleveland Business. Retrieved from http://www.crainscleveland.com/article/20180701/news/166851/new-akron-chamber-chief-steve-millard-aims-foster-collaboration-akron?#utm_medium=email&utm_source=ccl-morningroundup&utm_campaign=ccl-morningroundup-20180702&cci_test=morning