Akron -- Eschewing the usual standing speech for a more informal, candid discussion on Summit County affairs, County Executive Russell Pry delivered his yearly State of the County speech to a sold-out crowd at Akron's John S. Knight Center March 14.

The crowd numbered around 600 and included mayors, trustees, council members and other officials from around the county. After being introduced by Akron Beacon Journal editor Bruce Winges, Pry took the stage with National Public Radio web editor and contributor M.L. Schultze for a sit-down interview, during which Pry talked county finances and infrastructure, as well as the arts and health care.

Pry said job growth in the county is a high priority, which he hopes to address through job training programs through the Summit Workforce Solutions Board.

These initiatives include an employment qualification certificate program for ex-convicts, which Pry believes will reduce stress on the criminal justice and welfare systems. This program would grant employers immunity from negligent hiring decisions when employing ex-cons.

"Everyone is interested in trying to promote good job growth here," Pry said. "I think that is the No. 1 priority. You get somebody a job, they're more likely to be out of our welfare system and they're going to have a healthier and better life."

In an effort to address the 7.1-percent county unemployment rate recorded in February, Pry said workforce training programs are being developed with young people in mind to train a next generation of employed citizens, including the "Connect the Dots" program, which assists county youths in finding future employment through internships and apprenticeships.

"The whole idea is to get people hooked up with different job opportunities, give them skills, hopefully have them get that experience and keep them here in this county," Pry said.

Pry also discussed ongoing infrastructure projects in the county, including sewer expansions in Green and Stow. A priority project currently underway is the repair of a major septic system failure in the village of Clinton, which, according to Pry, has prevented business development in the area.

Pry also announced plans to shut down the Aurora Shores sewer treatment facility in Reminderville, replacing it with a broader, more efficient sewer program. The county owns and operates the sewer treatment facility in Reminderville.

"We're going to be able to take out of business a plant that's very expensive and replace it with an operation that will service all of the northeast quadrant of Summit County and it will be more efficient," Pry said.

Moving to health care, Pry discussed infant mortality rates in the county, a topic the executive had expressed concern for in previous addresses.

"[This is] a huge quality of life issue: You announced last year an initiative to help fight infant mortality in Summit County," Schultze said. "Give us an update on that."

Pry outlined an ongoing county initiative with the Summit County Collaborative for Better Birth Outcomes, a collection of 38 different agencies. The collaborative is promoting prenatal care, better sleeping habits, tobacco cessation and more.

"It's an area that we as a community really need to continue to work on," Pry said. "You think of all the quality health institutions we have here in Summit County, yet we have infant mortality rates that are far above the national average. When you look at our African American community, you see that we have about 14 infant deaths per 1,000 births. The number is completely unacceptable."

Looking toward support for county arts and culture groups, Pry entertained the possibility of a cigarette tax that would benefit arts organizations, though he said he is skeptical that a tax on tobacco products would be a sustainable tax source.

"Where that's going to go, I'm not sure," Pry said. "Those are things that still need to be discussed."

Schultze also took audience questions, which covered topics from meth and heroin abuse in the county to support for new businesses.

"We have some resources [for entrepenuers] that are there," Pry said. "One is we would make referrals to the Senior Corps of Retired Executives, that's a non-profit group. We currently have a revolving loan fund for businesses. Again, you still need to have a solid business plan before going into business and we would try and guide people to get to the right people to help them be successful."

Email: choward@recordpub.com