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Ohio may be proud of its cows and its cornfields but its Clevelands and its Cincinnatis are the future.
That's the message in a new report from the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program and the Greater Ohio Policy Center. The think tanks paired up for two years to look at how best to establish the hard-hit state as an economic powerhouse after the U.S. regains its financial footing.
The answer: Invest in the cities.
The report, unveiled Monday, calls metro regions "the key functional units in the global economy today" and sees Ohio as a good national testing ground for its ideas.
"It's the new spatial geography of the country and of places like Ohio," said Bruce Katz, co-founder of the Brookings metro program. "Almost every single Ohioan lives within an hour's drive of an urban area, and 50 percent live within 10 miles of an urban center."
The report identifies 16 separate metropolitan areas in the state, regions that include both cities and their suburban, exurban and rural surroundings. The areas range in size from cities like Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland to the Ohio River towns of Ironton, Marietta and East Liverpool.
Ohio has more metropolitan areas than any state except California, Texas and Florida.
But researchers say it needs a fresh vision for its cities that moves away from the reputation they have for bloated bureaucracy, parochial politics and geographic turf wars. Those often valid perceptions have sometimes fueled us-vs.-them battles between rural Ohioans -- including state policymakers from less populous areas -- and their urban counterparts.
The report recommends rewarding local governments for innovation, explicitly permitting local government tax sharing, modernizing Ohio's planning statutes, and changing the funding rules for infrastructure projects so major transit projects, inter-modal hubs and road improvements aren't caught up in government bickering.
Lavea Brachman, co-director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center, said the trick is keeping local pride and respecting every city's economic strengths and unique identity while scrapping the inefficient ways cities, counties, townships and school districts interact.
"We've got to look at how to pay for maintenance of state highways that pass through cities instead of stopping maintenance at the city's edge," she said.
Independent research commissioned as part of the study also found that Ohio ranks 47th among states for the share of its education dollar that goes to instruction and 9th for the share that goes to administration. Katz said those rankings need to be reversed.
The report recommends tough remedies. It says Ohio should impose new "best practices" standards on school districts through a state-level review commission, push aggressive service sharing arrangements, make administrative cost data readily accessible to the public, and ultimately cut the number of school districts statewide by a third.
The end goal of encouraging government to be leaner, less expensive and more innovative is twofold: to make cities more pleasant places to live, work and do business, and to help Ohio business and industry succeed, the authors said.
The idea is that by encouraging walkable waterfronts and neighborhood revitalization, cities can become more attractive places for knowledgeable workers to relocate as high-tech industries such as biomedical research or alternative energy development replace Ohio's old industrial, manufacturing economy.
Among recommendations is renewal of the popular and successful Third Frontier program and funds investment in innovative high-tech projects.
"Even the most imaginative, energized government cannot replace a strong private sector, and policies cannot compensate for fundamental weaknesses in markets," according to the report. "But if the state government adopts the policies recommended here, it will go far in laying the groundwork for private sector strength, filling holes that the private sector will not, and creating the conditions in which markets, places, and therefore people can flourish."
But the Brookings Institution's estimates suggest Ohio's strongest future still lies in the goods it produces.
Ohio is the 7th largest exporter of goods by value in the nation, the report noted, and the value of exports has grown every year for the past 11 -- even as overall state productivity has declined.
The report recommends a closer, more focussed partnership with the federal government in Ohio's future. It recommends that Ohio work to secure a federally funded Energy Innovation Hub, organize for a National Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory, develop a list of nationally significant projects potentially eligible for National Infrastructure Innovation and Finance Fund grants, and press federal policymakers to earmark funds for planning and operation of county-wide land banks capable of reclaiming vacant land.