Findlay, Ohio, has done it again.
Findlay — the home of Cooper Tire, Marathon Petroleum and Whirlpool dishwashers — accumulated 21 facility deals in 2017 to claim the title of Site Selection’s top micropolitan for the fourth consecutive year. Findlay has appeared among the top 10 a total of 12 times since 2000, another testament to the fact that something very rare and enduring is occurring in the town of 42,000 residents in northwest Ohio.
In 2017, as it did the previous two years, Ohio produced more Top 100 micropolitans than any other state — 16 — while Georgia came in second with 14. Wooster, Ohio, a former No. 1 micropolitan, finished third with 15 projects behind Batavia, New York, another perennial Top 10 finisher.
The Office of Management and Budget in the White House defines a micropolitan statistical area as one or more adjacent counties that have at least one urban core area of at least 10,000 but less than 50,000, plus adjacent territory that has a high degree of social and economic integration with the core as measured by commuting ties.
Findlay’s 21 qualifying investments are five short of the town’s record haul of 26 in 2015, and one shy of its take in 2016. Worth noting is the fact that No. 2 Batavia’s 17 projects make it the No. 1 micropolitan on a per capita basis.
A Formula for Repeat Success
So, how does Findlay succeed, year after year?
“They’re passionate about what they do,” says Dan Wendorf, managing director of JLL’s office in Columbus, Ohio. Wendorf works with Findlay on attracting new companies.
“They exude the trust and confidence our clients are looking for,” he says. “They’re passionate about what they do, and that’s contagious. It makes Findlay a very pleasant and efficient place to do business.”
Wendorf praises “cohesion” among Findlay’s economic development professionals, elected officials and private sector partners, which facilitates speed and focus in going after deals.
“They have sites that are ready, they’re pro-business and they coordinate their efforts with no individual agendas. You really do feel like they’re there to make it happen.”
Asked how Findlay does it, Tim Mayle, director of Findlay-Hancock County Economic Development, explains that the “Findlay Formula” is really quite simple.
“It’s the same model and strategy we’ve been employing for a long time here. It’s our ability to get people in a room together and work a project. Once we get a project here and meet the group, Findlay sells very well.”
Among Findlay’s top wins of 2017 was a $44-million investment by New Jersey-based Campbell Soup Company, which has broken ground on a 740,000-sq.-ft. (68,748-sq.-m.) distribution center that will employ 200 people on the city’s north end. The site leverages Findlay’s proximity to Interstate 75 and CSX’s North Baltimore railyard. Campbell officials say the Findlay facility, the company’s third in northwest Ohio, will serve as the company’s future Midwest distribution hub. (Nearby Napoleon also will soon grow busier, as the company diverts manufacturing from a Canadian plant it chose in January to shut down.)
“What’s really exciting is that this is central to their plans for e-commerce,” says Mayle of Findlay’s new distribution center. “The consumer’s always gone to the grocery store to get their food. In the future that’s going to change, where we’re going to buy it on our phone and the food will find us. So, they’re making this investment for the long term.”
Sweden’s Autoliv, like Campbell’s, is making a major investment in Findlay that is likely to pay dividends far down the road. Autoliv, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of airbags and passenger restraint systems, has formed a joint venture with Japanese break systems supplier Nissin Kogyo, a company that’s had a presence in Findlay for a quarter century.
In August, Autoliv-Nissin Brake announced plans to invest $60 million in a 216,000-sq.-ft. (20,067-sq.-m.) plant that will supply Honda and a yet-to-be-named domestic automaker with autonomous braking systems. Findlay is less than two hours from Detroit.
Findlay has been successful in luring a number of Honda suppliers since the automaker announced plans to build a manufacturing plant outside Columbus; today there are seven automotive parts companies in the Findlay area that directly supply Japanese automakers.
Just as Findlay is evolving to meet demands of the times — witness a Main Street facelift — so, too, is its economic development strategy. Mayle’s office has broadened its mission beyond strict business attraction and retention into workforce development, small business aid, downtown development and long-term community planning.
“We now do a tremendous amount of planning out of our office,” he says. “We don’t want development to happen by chance. We want it to be well thought out, and something the community is ready to accept.”
No. 2 Micropolitan: Batavia, New York
Batavia, New York climbs to No. 2 in our ranking of top micropolitans, having tied for fifth place each of the last two years. Batavia, in 2017, accumulated 17 qualifying projects. As the only town in New York to make the top 40, Batavia might seem to be enough of an outlier to make one wonder whether there’s something in the water. In fact, there is: power.
Batavia, in Genesee County, has the luxury of being located within 30 miles of the New York Power Authority’s Niagara Hydroelectric Power Plant, which generates 2.4 million kilowatts of renewable energy. Under a New York law passed in 2005, the Power Authority provides electricity to qualifying businesses at cost, which translates to a highly competitive rate of less than three-and-a-half cents per kilowatt hour delivered, says Chris Suozzi, vice president of business & workforce development at the Genesee County Economic Development Center.
Keith Hayes, the Power Authority’s vice president for economic development, says low-cost hydropower is available to companies within the 30-mile radius that do good for the community, whether they’re new to the region or expanding.
“Jobs is certainly one thing we look at,” Hayes tells Site Selection. “We look at the wages and benefits of those jobs. We look at capital investment. And we look at how the business supports the regional goals and objectives of the economic development councils in the region.”
O-AT-KA Milk Cooperative, Genesee County’s largest employer and No. 1 economic driver, is one of at least 10 Batavia businesses, says Hayes, that qualify for the “at cost” electricity rate. O-AT-KA, which completed a $21-million expansion two years ago, announced a 20,000-sq.-ft (1,858-sq.-m.) expansion in 2017 to house a new beverage production line and support equipment. The $34-million project is to boost the facility’s workforce by 20, while retaining 440 jobs.
Incentives and available property helped Batavia lure another major dairy project — this one from out of state — when Massachusetts-based HP Hood announced it would purchase the idle Muller Quaker Dairy Plant in the city’s Agri-Business Park. Hood, one of New England’s largest dairy companies, produces LACTAID, a lactose-free milk, and Axelrod, a yogurt, cottage cheese and sour cream line. The company bought the 363,000-sq.-ft. (33,445-sq.-m.) facility for a reported $60 million and plans to expand it by 100,000 sq. ft. (9,290 sq. m.) and begin producing extended-life beverages there in 2019. Hood is to invest more than $200 million over five years and create 230 new jobs, with construction expected to employ 524 workers with a payroll of nearly $26 million.
Opening New Horizons
While agribusiness and food processing comprise the heart of the local economy, Batavia is actively encouraging investments in advanced manufacturing, nanotechnology and solar power. The cornerstone of that effort is the 1,250-acre (506-hectare) Genesee County STAMP site, a high-tech office and industrial park considered to be one of the most ambitious development projects in New York State. More than a decade of planning and $40 million of investment preceded the 2017 ground-breaking.
“We’re ready for customers now,” says Suozzi. “If they want to start construction today, they can do it.”
Like Findlay, Batavia seems bent on pushing boundaries and staying ahead of the curve. The nation’s top two micropolitans of 2017 also share a commitment to team in their aggressive brands of economic development.
“The secret,” says Suozzi, “is cooperation and collaboration, getting everybody rowing in the right direction. That’s why we’ve had such success over the last 15 years. Trying to get everybody on the same page is difficult when you have a lot of different groups. But economic development is a team sport. You’re as good as your weakest link.”
Gary Daughters is a Peabody Award winning journalist who began with Site Selection in 2016. Gary has worked as a writer and producer for CNN covering US politics and international affairs. His work has included lengthy stints in Washington, DC and western Europe. Gary is a 1981 graduate of the University of Georgia, where he majored in Journalism and Mass Communications. He lives in Atlanta with his teenage daughter, and in his spare time plays guitar, teaches golf and mentors young people.