From David Herzer’s office on the third floor of his law firm’s building, he can see the signs of the times.
Target. The Home Depot. Applebee’s. Old Navy. All stores that’ve sprung up along I-90, moving in just like Wickens, Herzer, Panza, Cook and Batista Co. did in 2002.
“We needed to get to a location that was more accessible to our client base. … And we wanted to have more visibility,” Herzer explains.
The move was a factor in spurring development in the region; now Avon and the surrounding area is one of the fastest-growing parts of Lorain County.
“I think one reason Avon has grown so is because it’s right on [Interstate] 90,” Herzer says. “What’s happened here in Avon shows you can have significant development in Lorain County, and I think it has to do with the proximity to the highway.”
Growth in Lorain County is really nothing new, however. Since Columbia Station was settled nearly 200 years ago, the region has welcomed wave after wave of new families and new businesses looking for a place to grow.
A County Takes Shape
The fertile farmlands of southern Lorain County first drew settlers from New England in the early 1800s. Irish immigrants arrived in the 1830s, former slaves who escaped on the Underground Railroad stayed in Oberlin, and more Irish, British and German immigrants made their homes here by the 1880s. Milling took hold at the waterfalls near Elyria and quarrying commenced nearly countywide.
“Amherst has survived as the dominant sandstone producer,” says Bill Bird, executive director of the Lorain County Historical Society. “But in the older days, there were many, many quarries. … There were quarries in Elyria, there were quarries out in the Midview area, there were quarries in the LaGrange area.”
Lorain County grew steadily through 1880, with 35,526 people calling it home. Then the boom hit.
With economic and political unrest rampant in Europe, many ethnic groups moved into the area, boosting the population to 54,857 by 1900. The majority of the developing jobs were in Elyria and Lorain, both of which were well situated for transportation.
“The shipbuilding industry was really, really important. It started as far back as 1819 in Lorain,” Bird says. “It was a huge, huge employer and helped Lorain grow.”
Garford Manufacturing produced an improved bicycle seat in the 1890s, and Johnson Steel Co. was founded then as well. With these and other manufacturers located in Lorain County around the turn of the century, the county’s population saw another population spike (90,612 by 1920) due to the ready jobs in the industrial sector.
But the face of manufacturing changed following the Great Depression. Family-owned facilities began to give way to larger national companies. Ford and General Motors came to Lorain County after World War II and had a big impact on the population.
“A lot of people from West Virginia and Kentucky came to Lorain County to work in the auto plants,” says Bird. “And that certainly changed the face of our culture significantly.”
Population growth was also boosted by the advent of the streetcar.
“The streetcar was very, very important. The streetcar allowed people to live in other parts of the county and work in the shipyards in Lorain or work in the steel mills,” Bird explains.
The Driving Force
Commuting has always been key to Lorain County’s growth.
“What’s really, really changed the case of those communities [in the southern part of the county] is people wanting to get out of the metropolitan area and the fact that you can get to Cleveland so easily from the southern part of the county because of Routes 10 and 20, which connect to [Interstate 480],” Bird says.
He points to the Keystone area around LaGrange, which, prior to the 1970s, was a farming region. By the end of the decade, people were building bigger, more expensive homes there, and have been ever since.
“And of course now, because our cost of living here is a little lower, you’re seeing tremendous growth in the northeast, in Avon. People who live in Cleveland who don’t want to pay Cuyahoga County taxes move out here and still work in Cleveland,” Bird says. “No question it’s that we have easy access to Cleveland. That changes the whole face.”
Life in Lorain
But not everyone who lives here makes the Cleveland commute.
“I think the economy in Lorain County is changing,” says Frank DeTillio, president and CEO of the Lorain County Chamber of Commerce. “Companies here today have survived some trying times in the last 10, 12 years.”
Downsizing, new technology and quality control have led to some factories closing and a shift in the steel industry. It’s been a rocky trip for local businesses, but many have managed to weather the storm, thanks in part to the county’s educational institutions.
Lorain County Community College offers Enterprise Ohio’s SkillsMAX program, which provides employee assessment, certification and training, as well as an Advanced Technologies Center for business and industry. It also set up a University Partnership program, in which students can attend classes at LCCC to earn degrees from a number of Ohio universities.
“We are transforming from a large industrial base to a small to middle industrial base. I think through a variety of organizations, especially Lorain County Community College, there’s a lot of people trying to work to make that change,” says Joe Faga, chairman of the Lorain County Chamber of Commerce.
Oberlin’s Lorain County Joint Vocational School has been educating high school juniors and seniors for more than 35 years, and now offers classes for adults as well.
“The workforce needed employees to be coming to them trained. We serve still as one of the resources employers use when they are looking for qualified workers,” says Peggy Michener, director of the Adult Career Center at the JVS. “We look to our successful graduates, we look to the community agencies we partner with, we look to the business community to help us focus on what our future will be, because we are working with them to produce high-quality employees for the workforce.”
The JVS works with the Lorain County Growth Partnership, a one-stop shop for business owners to get information and answers. The partnership — and other groups born out of the chamber, such as Team Lorain County, which works with Team Northeast Ohio (Team NEO) on regional development — focuses on business retention, expansion and attraction.
One of the latest projects in development is Premier Soccer Academies, an elite training facility primed to open this summer. Male and female soccer players from around the world will vie for slots at the camp/school compound, a creation of Bay Village native and former World Cup team-member Brad Friedel.
“Brad wants to give back to the community,” explains Craig Umland, the center’s chief operating officer. “It’s going to be something very positive for the community; it’s going to put Northeast Ohio on the map globally.”
“I think everybody still here has weathered the storm,” DeTillio says. “Not to say that there won’t be trying times in the future, but they’ve been more adaptable and apt to make changes in their environments to make their companies work.”
The chamber turns 20
Another force of positive change in Lorain County has come from the Lorain County Chamber of Commerce, which formed in 1987 as a merger between the Elyria and Lorain chambers. With 20 years of experience under its belt, the chamber remains focused on evolving and staying in touch with the times.
“We need to work extremely hard to keep ahead of the curve, in what will be next in the cycle,” says DeTillio. He’s been on board since 1988, and looks forward to the road ahead. As smaller companies move in to the area, they’re facing the same issues that larger companies face, but they don’t have the same resources. “We’ve become even more important in the equation,” for these kinds of businesses, DeTillio says.
A Developing Future
“My dream is for us to create a new economy based around new technology and entrepreneurism,” says Bob Campana, a real estate developer and Lorain County Chamber of Commerce board member. “We want to hang on to whatever we can, but we want to create an environment for up-and-coming entrepreneurs to want to build their business with our assets. We have a welcome mat to anybody who is interested to build business.”
DeTillio says the chamber, working with the business-relationship side of local industries, and Team NEO, Team Lorain County and other members of the Lorain County Growth Partnership, is focused on creating that positive environment.
“One of the things that we’re always looking for is opportunities to create more fluid [ways] for businesses to succeed,” he says.
It entails collaboration of resources, keeping in contact with businesses and working with the public policy arm of the chamber to make sure laws affecting business negatively are reformed. They’re also working on improving job availability and maintaining a good quality of life, “so we become the community of choice,” DeTillio explains.
And it’s working.
“We’re already moving in the right direction, most recently with the creation of the Lorain County Growth Partnership, an organization that brings all the economic development entities [both public and private] together with a unified vision and effort, providing businesses with a ‘one-stop shop’ for any assistance needed,” says Ted Kalo, president of the Lorain County Board of Commissioners.
Campana agrees that the county is working more collaboratively.
“It’s a true team approach now compared to the past,” he says. “There’s a genuine interest between the county commissioners, chamber of commerce and the college to have a coordinated effort and all together working for us locally, but as part of Team NEO … which is the regional approach. We’re all going in the same direction, and that’s a breath of fresh air.”
The Keys to Community
“In the 1960s and ’70s, everybody wanted to live on a golf course, right? I have developers advertising to live next to a park we haven’t built yet,” says Lorain County Metro Parks Director Dan Martin. “Everybody wants a park in their backyard.”
Martin says the parks system is working to tie the communities around the county together. It already is achieving its goal of creating a park in every major community (Avon and Avon Lake’s parks are being established), and next will focus on bike trails.
“You see this all across northern Ohio; the demand for bike trails is amazing,” he says. “We have 50 miles of trails in our county right now. … We’re trying to link things together so people can ride and hike long distances.”
While the county grows residentially, Mark Nosacka, president and CEO of Community Health Partners in Lorain, says a vital key is taking care of each other.
“Sick people will always be with us and we always will have people in our communities who are called to care for sick people,” he says. “The challenge will be, how do we afford the infrastructure necessary to enable people to take care of other people?”
His hospital is focusing on the whole person to achieve those goals. “Now with Community Health Partners, we’ve been focused in three key areas: ease of access and accessibility for patients; personalized care and attention; [and] quality and safety,” he explains.
That means connecting community members directly with the health care options available to them, treating the whole person — mind, body and spirit — and keeping their safety marks high.
“At the end of the day, we are still a community of people taking care of people in our community. We like to say it’s the unity of community,” Nosacka says.
The Road Ahead
The abundance of growth means that educational opportunities are increasingly important. LCCC is expanding and promoting its Entrepreneurship Innovation Institute’s training and business services, and the JVS is now open all day and evening, offering workshops, seminars and video conferencing. It’s also exploring online courses.
“I think that we are preparing students, both high school and adults, to master academic skills. It’s an important accomplishment we continue to work toward as well as preparing our population for employment in terms of soft skills,” says Michener. “We spend significant time with conflict resolution, problem solving, leadership roles, team building. Those are the things that are necessary in today’s workplace.”
They will be necessary as the development moves forward and swells, both in the areas where growth is just starting and where it is booming. Herzer can see it just from his office. But he says the communities must work together to make the development work.
“If everyone can come together, public sector and private sector, and act as a unit, the development here can be great,” he says. “I think Lorain County has a lot to offer.”