Successful Collaborations: Three Rules and Lessons Learned from a Lima, OH Project

Definition of "collaborate"Few community development projects can succeed without funding support and—ideally, successful collaboration. In Lima OH, a group of university and public/private sector partners had been loosely formed based on a two-year pilot research project led by Knowlton School working with OSU Lima and the City of Lima Land Bank. By fall 2017, the group had expanded to include Extension among a team of university researchers representing three academic departments and a dozen community-based organizations, including the City of Lima Land Bank. The groundwork had been laid to move beyond the research phase of the project with the group coalescing behind a general plan to utilize vacant city-owned land for a food systems intervention project.


With a loose collaboration and a general project in mind, the group decided to seek out an OSU Connect and Collaborate grant to design and implement the project. The challenge had begun to organize and formalize a successful collaboration behind one project with very specific parameters. The research team started by inviting stakeholders back to the table to begin writing the grant and planning the implementation project. Over the next year, with the aim of congealing a collaborative group to reach consensus on the project, a location, and partner commitments, researchers followed three rules resulting in (mostly) success. Our general rules and lessons learned follow.

Rule #1:  Establish a communications plan.

At an initial October 2017 stakeholder meeting, we set the stage by establishing a communications plan, and sticking to it. After a review of the existing research project and an overview of the grant expectations, a communication plan was discussed and agreed to. The communications plan included regularly scheduled or as-needed face-to-face meetings that would be announced by e-mail at least a week ahead of time. The meetings would keep partners up to date with the grant process but also provide ample opportunities for input. They would be scheduled in the evening, include food and generally last two hours. An e-mailed summary of the meeting discussion and action steps would follow shortly after the meeting took place. One-on-one time was frequently needed with some partners to work through tasks or answer questions. Finally, partners expected full transparency about issues or concerns.

Rule #1 helped to build and retain trust among the collaborators. Trust was essential for partners to reach a consensus on the project. Lesson learned:  Partners are on the hook to attend every meeting, or send a representative. When one stops showing or communicating, anticipate a problem, then reach out to find out what it is and work to correct it. In one instance, our response to a no-show was slow, and we almost lost an important partner!

Rule #2:  Clarify expectations up front.

Anyone who has been involved with the Connect and Collaborate Grants Program knows that the program leverages university teams aligned with public/private sector partners to address challenges, and the partners have to be all in. So, rule #2, which applies to this grant or any successful collaborative project, requires teams to clarify expectations up front. Partners are expected to do more than just meet; they need to come up with what their organizations can commit to, whether it be matching funds, in-kind time, or other resources, and then put it in writing. This expectation is easier said than done. Partners need to know what is expected up front and be reminded along the way. No surprises!

Rule #2 kept everyone accountable and on task. Lesson learned: Verbal commitments can be different than written commitments, and the written ones are usually not as exciting! Get written commitments in draft form so they can be reviewed and agreed on before formalizing the final commitment. That is, give development of commitment letters more than a couple days at the end of a project…allow for at least a week or more.

Rule #3:  Be flexible, prepare for change and potentially, difficult discussions.

Even the most well laid out plan can (and will!) change, so teams must be flexible. 30 research team conference calls, 8 stakeholder meetings and 4 community events later, our project looked different, was located on a different site, included a new partner, and involved an entirely new component that took us down a new funding path.

Rule #3 made possible an improved project, stronger commitments and greater potential for sustainability. Lesson learned: Change doesn’t have to be a negative, it can actually help strengthen a project. In order to get there, though, difficult discussions had to take place and one partner was almost alienated entirely.

Nancy Bowen is an Associate Professor & Extension Field Specialist, Community Economics.

Battling Blight by Tackling Vacancies in Lima, Ohio

Vacant parcels and abandoned properties are a big problem for many of Ohio’s cities, some that have been shrinking for decades as a result of sustained population loss. Blighted properties that litter the urban landscape can cost cities millions in lost property taxes, foreclosures and demolition costs, not to mention opportunity costs to local economies. A report by Greater Ohio Policy Center (GOPC) in 2008 on eight shrinking cities in Ohio estimated annual costs of city services to these properties at 15 million dollars, and lost property tax revenues from demolitions and tax delinquencies at over 49 million dollars.

Abandoned property

Abandoned property

Lima, the Allen county seat, is an example of a city facing the challenge of hundreds of vacant and abandoned properties. Over the past two years, faculty and students from OSU’s Knowlton School, in collaboration with OSU Lima and the City of Lima Land Bank, have piloted a program, the Ohio Land Exchange (OH/LEX), to address the vacancy problem in Lima. They have surveyed and mapped hundreds of tax delinquent parcels, which, according to Lima’s Mayor Berger, has “provided Lima vacancy patterns and demotion needs, as well as detailed maps of locations, flood plains, and potential reuses” (link). The team also engaged over a dozen local non-profits who have been meeting regularly to explore beneficial ways to reuse the properties.

Reaching a consensus

Reaching a consensus on land reuse priorities

In the past year, Knowlton School expanded the partnership to include OSU Extension, holding a workshop in May 2017 to introduce the program to Extension Educators statewide. Extension is providing the boots on the ground needed to take the initiative from mapping and data collection to project implementation. Data has helped to inform stakeholders about property locational assets or liabilities, including soil conditions or proximity to bus stops, to determine potential forms of reuse and appropriate locations. One of these stakeholders is Activate Allen County, a non-profit organization formed in 2012, tasked with improving the health and well-being of Lima and Allen County residents. The organization conducted a food system assessment which found that 53% of Lima citizens reside in a food desert, the region has the second highest obesity rate in Ohio, and almost 11% of its residents suffer from diabetes. The proposed implementation project is the result of numerous meetings with local stakeholders to reach a consensus on land reuse priorities, including food system improvements.

Funding support has come from a 2017 Connect and Collaborate grant that supported increased and strengthened stakeholder engagement and formulation of a plan for Lima. Another grant, currently under review, would provide support for a phased food systems implementation strategy, to create a temporary “food and entrepreneurship lab” and to conduct a market analysis for a permanent food hub. The second phase, dependent on the outcome of the first phase, is the development of a permanent food hub. The food and entrepreneurship lab includes the design and build of a model urban garden and community space on vacant land near the city center. Concurrently, a market analysis will be conducted to identify the impact, needs and potential uses for a permanent food hub based on existing retail sales data, data gathered at the lab, and surveys of local residents.

As a pilot location, Lima will demonstrate the costs and benefits of the OH/LEX program and its potential value for other cities in Ohio. Do you see a need in your city?

Nancy Bowen is an Associate Professor & Extension Field Specialist, Community Economics.

How Economic Developers Engage with Extension

Smith Lever Act of 1914


Extension has long been an economic development partner involved in a wide range of issues, from water quality and agricultural practices to retail and energy. Since passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, Extension has provided outreach and non-formal education to strengthen lives and communities across the country.

Over the last century, Extension has continued its original mission to extend university resources while also adapting to changing times, to address a wide range of challenges and opportunities in both urban and rural areas. Extension can be found in all 50 states, with about 2,900 offices nationwide. In Ohio, over 700 Extension professionals staff offices within all 88 counties, in addition to numerous regional and state offices, that enable this outreach arm of Ohio State University to engage communities, businesses, and organizations of any size and location.

How do local economic development organizations (EDOs) find out about and engage with Extension? Typically, they hear about services and contact Extension directly, or Extension professionals reach out through workshops and forums about their programs and resources. Extension professionals are frequent speakers at a variety of conferences and meetings at the local, state, and national levels. EDOs are also often in contact with Extension professionals as co-members on boards of community and economic development organizations.

Extension has partnered with EDOs in pursuit of just about every imaginable economic development function. In Ohio, Extension was an early adopter of business retention and expansion practices, developing one of the first formal BR&E programs. Since 1986, Ohio State University Extension’s BR&E Program has developed capacity of community leaders via more than 140 programs in 77 Ohio counties, in both urban and suburban areas.

In terms of workforce development, OSU’s STEM Pathways program aims to increase youth curiosity, logical thinking, problem-solving skills, and team communication abilities, to ensure tomorrow’s workforce is highly skilled and globally competitive. Extension professionals teach the STEM program curriculum directly to students and in a train-the-trainer format for the teachers who will then deliver the program.

Energy development, including renewables and shale gas, is a focus area for Extension. New programs have been developed to help businesses and communities assess the costs and benefits of energy development. The commissioners of Wyandot County recently enlisted Extension to conduct a survey of residents and land owners on their feelings toward wind farm development. Survey findings enabled the county commissioners to decide whether wind development was a good fit for the county.

Most of Extension’s work is research-based, involving collecting, compiling, and analyzing original data through surveys, focus groups, and other outreach techniques. For instance, Extension professionals implement a variety of qualitative and quantitative tools to help communities better understand trends and conditions of their local and regional economies.

The Economic Impact Analysis (EIA) and Retail Market Analysis (RMA) programs are good examples of applied research in action. Both programs help communities measure change in their local economies to guide local decision-making. Extension professionals recently completed an EIA project to estimate the impact of tourism generated by the Lakeside Chautauqua in Ottawa County. RMA projects are frequently implemented, usually on the county level, to help inform EDOs about which retail sectors are growing and to identify gaps in the retail market.

Extension professionals and resources are also widely available online. Economic developers can find out more about Extension services on university websites, many of which have extensive links to fact sheets, blogs and social media sites. A somewhat new initiative, “eXtension,” is an internet-based portal with access to specialized information and research on a wide range of topics from land-grant universities across the country.

The pursuit of meaningful and productive partnerships is a core principle of Extension. Extension professionals seek out opportunities to collaborate on mutually beneficial projects and welcome new project ideas from economic developers and others. Economic developers can partner with Extension to leverage a wide range of useful university resources.

Nancy Bowen is an Associate Professor & Extension Field Specialist, Community Economics.

Working Together to Strengthen Ohio’s Economy

How does Extension better address vacant storefronts, underemployment issues, and help inform local economic development strategies? It engages local Extension professionals in a day-long in-service focused on building their familiarity with ‘Community Economics’ programs. A few weeks ago CD professionals learned more about economic development tools they can use to better impact communities throughout Ohio. The workshop featured familiar – and not so familiar – programs being conducted throughout the state to address the on-going economic concerns many Ohio communities are facing.

BR&E Training

David Civittolo explaining BR&E Program assumptions.

Discussed were tried and true programs such as Business Retention & Expansion (BR&E), first delivered by OSU Extension in 1986, as well as the popular First Impressions program which has been used by Extension systems throughout the country as a way to gain authentic visitor insight about ways to improve communities. The more recent (and technical) Economic Impact Analysis (EIA) and Retail Market Analysis (RMA) programs were also shared. With a little training, both can provide a wealth of information about how local economies work, informing strategies for use by local development officials.

Nancy Bowen

Nancy Bowen discussing various outcomes of BR&E.

Senior Extension staff members David Civittolo, Myra Moss, Eric Romich and Nancy Bowen convened participants and led discussion focused on how the various programs can be applied locally, including, for example:

  • “Estimating the economic impact of a ‘typical’ farmer’s market”
  • “Learning more about residents’ perceptions of community services”
  • “Identifying development opportunities in a central business district”

Participants left equipped with a better understanding of some of Extension’s economic development tools and how to apply them in their own communities.  After the one-day workshop, participant Trevor Corboy indicated that he felt ready to put these tools into action in a number of Clermont County communities.

Find out more about these and other community economics programs and how they can be put to work in your community by contacting any one of the presenters above. For basic information, visit our Economic Development program page.

Every one of us lives in a community. Let’s work together to make them better!

Nancy Bowen is an Associate Professor and Extension Field Specialist, Community Economics.

BRE: 30 Years of Community Economic Impact

This year marked the 30-year anniversary of an Extension program that’s been delivered in nearly every county of Ohio. After 30 years, do you believe the program could still be relevant?

In just the past three weeks, two requests and a highly anticipated software announcement underscore the innovation and ongoing importance of the Business Retention & Expansion (BRE) program first conceived by OSU’s Leroy Hushak and George Morse in 1986. First, the two requests: 1) a WVU Extension Educator recently called to ask if the BRE program could serve as an effective response mechanism for a number of West Virginia counties that experienced significant flooding this summer, and 2) a new OSU Educator recently inquired about whether BRE could be used to address business gaps within a neighborhood or village setting. The answer (of course):  Yes, and yes!! 

mobile-app-2016-09-15Next, an announcement was made last week regarding a new BRE-customized mobile application that is now ready for commercial release. The mobile application is a highly anticipated outcome of a North Central Regional Center for Rural Development (NCRCRD) multi-state collaborative grant project to elevate and expand the BRE program in the region and throughout the U.S. The team of Ohio, Indiana and Iowa researchers identified the application as a way to revolutionize how data is collected for BRE tracking and reporting. A demonstration and presentation of the mobile application will take place at the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) annual conference September 25 in Cleveland (see program description and speakers below).

BRE began as a comprehensive and innovative program that brought structure to what had been informal efforts focused on improving communications between communities and companies. Since then, the formalized program has been implemented in communities of all sizes and has become a staple for many local, regional and state economic development programs throughout the world. It continues today as a dynamic program to promote business growth, job creation, and healthier economies.

A 2009 national survey found that 62% of cities and counties were doing BRE surveys with their businesses and 82% were partnering with chambers of commerce or others in BRE efforts. Despite widespread use of the program, there has been little research into best practices and how to measure the impact of ongoing BRE programs.

OSU Extension has collaborated with the IEDC to plan and organize a workshop that will explore the impact of BRE at the upcoming IEDC conference at the Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland. It will highlight case studies presented by program representatives, demonstrate new innovations to operate or evaluate BRE programs, and offer an interactive roundtable discussion of current BRE best practices.

It is our goal that attendees will learn:

  • How BRE is used as a central component of economic development strategies
  • New methods to measure the impact of BRE
  • Best practices focused on data collection, analysis and reporting techniques

The workshop will involve the following speakers, several of whom work in Extension:

Moderator: Gwen Eberly, Economic Development Manager, Montgomery County/Community & Economic Development, Dayton, OH


  • Rick Berthiaume, Manager Economic Development, Ministry of Agriculture, Food & Rural Affairs, Guelph, ON, Canada
  • Nancy Bowen-Ellzey, CEcD, Associate Professor and Field Specialist, Community Economics, Ohio State University Extension, Lima, OH
  • David Civittolo, Associate Professor and Field Specialist, Community Economics Ohio State University, Wooster, OH
  • Michael Darger, EDFP, Community Economics Specialist, University of Minnesota Extension, St. Paul, MN
  • Greg Davis, Assistant Director, Ohio State University Extension, Community Development, Columbus, OH
  • David J. Myers, CEcD, Executive Director, Ponca City Development Authority, Ponca City, OK
  • Brent Painter, Director of Economic Development, City of Strongsville, Strongsville, OH
  • Will Warren, CEcD, Consultant, Solutions Delivery, JumpStart Inc., Cleveland, OH

For more IEDC program information or to register, go to

 Nancy Bowen-Ellzey is an Associate Professor and Extension Field Specialist focused on Community Economics.

RNC Rockin’ Cleveland with Estimated Direct Economic Impact of $200M. What is Your Impact?

Community and industry leaders often ask, “What is the economic impact of….”

  • tourism?
  • wind energy?
  • a new business?
  • a large event?

Take, for example, the Republican National Convention to be held in Cleveland in July. Organizers estimate that the event will draw about 50,000 visitors generating a direct economic impact of around $200 million and providing a significant boost to the state and local economy. Understanding the economic impact is essential in gaining local support for the event. It is also necessary for informing decisions regarding community investments in infrastructure, safety, or other support activities for the event.

Economic Impact Analysis 2016-04-07

Van Wert County, Ohio provides another example of economic impact analysis in action. Community leaders were preparing to undergo a fundraising campaign to raise $2M to develop and market a new industrial site. To make the pitch, they hoped to estimate the campaign’s return on investment in terms of jobs, wages, and spending and tax revenues benefitting the community. Partnering with Extension, the economic impact to the local economy was studied and the findings communicated. This step played a critical role in successfully raising the funds needed to develop and market the site.

A contribution analysis for a private sector organization is another way this tool can be used. In 2012, Extension Community Development conducted an analysis involving the Ohio Ethanol Industry to estimate the economic contribution of that sector in Ohio. The analysis considered both the operations and construction of six ethanol plants to estimate total output, employment and income impacts on the state. The information was helpful to the industry in planning for future investment.

The Extension Community Development Economic Impact Analysis (EIA) Program utilizes IMPLAN, an input-output modeling program, to generate customized analyses for both the public and private sectors. Reports range from a snapshot of the current economy to more extensive information on the effects that an industry change will have on a designated study area. Reports are based on clientele needs. Please visit our EIA Program page to learn more.

(Submitted by Nancy Bowen, Associate Professor and Extension Field Specialist, Community Economics)