Aurora’s new economic development director, Holly Harris Bane, has a wealth of experience in higher education, workforce development and government, and now she’s putting that experience to work for the city of Aurora.
But before she could get to know Aurora’s businesses better and learn about their workforce needs, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the economy.
"Everybody had locked down," she said. "My first week on the job they had just passed the CARES Act. I put everything into what I thought was pretty basic information package. For six weeks, I was just getting out information about federal, state and local programs to help companies."
She’s working part-time for the city earning a salary of $48,000 per year to work between 25 and 29 hours per week. Her first day was March 31.
Since 2016, Harris Bane has been president of the Northeast Ohio Council for Higher Education. She also has held positions at the University of Akron and the Office of International Programs and Confucius Institute.
She also helped found the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron under the guidance of former University of Akron President Dr. Luis Proenza and helped found and lead the OhioReads program under former Gov. Bob Taft.
"Initially when the governor hired me, the goal was to have 10,000 volunteers from across the state of Ohio to serve as reading mentors of children in grades three and four," said Harris Bane. "After two years, we had 40,000 adults in the schools. It was a great community engagement program."
Harris Bane said Aurora’s leadership and school system are two of its biggest assets. She said she’s known Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin for years and appreciates the relationships she’s built around the state.
"Leadership within a community makes a big difference for economic development," she said.
She said Womer Benjamin has successfully connected several businesses in the community with the Ohio Manufacturing Alliance, which is focused on producing personal protective equipment in state so if a second COVID-19 wave hits, Ohio is in a good position when it comes to supply line matters.
"That’s a phenomenal alliance, and she’s also surrounded herself with a very professional team," said Harris Bane. "The industrial park also is an asset. I had no idea how big that was and how many businesses there were. There’s also an entrepreneurial spirit in this community that I wasn’t aware of until I was here."
She said community members often move back to town when they want to start a company or family.
The close-knit relationships among the business, city and school communities also will help, she added.
"The more that businesses, schools and government work together and collaborate, the better it is for the community," she said, explaining those relationships help foster workforce development and strengthen the community at all levels.
In addition to the difficulties businesses everywhere face with the COVID-19 pandemic, Harris Bane said it would be nice if the city had more industrial space to expand in.
"You’re going to find that developers are going to be hesitant to build more buildings ready to move into," she said. "One of the things we’re hearing is that companies that were planning to expand and grow their workforce may not feel the need right now to expand into new buildings."
That's a trend that Streetsboro Mayor Glenn Broska has discussed off and one for the past year or so, but COVID-19 may be making the situation more difficult, according to Harris Bane, since many businesses may be encouraging employees to work from home.
She also said she’d like to see more IT firms in Aurora to further diversify the city’s business base.
"They could blend easily into development that’s already here," she said. "That would be a great connection where our high school students could do internships … and even work at during their college career.
Another challenge is filling unusual retail locations, such as the former Doogan’s restaurant and Cinemark 10 at Barrington Town Center, but with creativity she believes the spaces will be filled again.
"I like to bring people together to share ideas and get the creative juices flowing," said Harris Bane. "Everybody I’ve spoken to in Aurora wants [the former Doogan’s location] to be another restaurant, but 11,000 square feet is pretty big for a restaurant. Maybe it’s a space where all the entrepreneurs in Aurora can have their own hub."
She also said it could house food truck restaurants which normally are at their busiest during the summer with its farmers markets and festivals.
"It will be a process of bringing the right people to the table and discussing how to create that space," she said. "We need to think of that 11,000 square feet not as a detriment to marketing it but as an advantage."
Reporter Bob Gaetjens can be reached at email@example.com or @bobgaetjens_rc.