Tom Blaha frequently uses baseball terms to describe economic development. Some projects are warming up in the bullpen. Some are strikeouts. And some are stroked out of the park.
|Tom Blaha next to his award showcase at the Wood County Economic Development office. (Photo: Enoch Wu/Sentinel-Tribune)
Blaha can't help but blend his boyhood dream in Cleveland with his adult profession in Wood County.
"I think I realized by the time I was 12 that I was not going to be a baseball player," he said.
But as executive director of the Wood County Economic Development since its inception in 1993, Blaha has hit some homeruns. He has been the local man behind the CSX hub near North Baltimore, Dominion Energy in Troy Township, Walgreens in Perrysburg Township, and many more.
Though Blaha seems a natural at talking business, he started his career teaching history in Scotland to children of American oil workers. As the American workers were being phased out, Blaha realized his job would soon be gone, so in 1985 he renewed contacts with Bowling Green people he had met while attending BGSU.
He was told of a new grant-funded economic development program through WSOS.
With his masters in economic geography, Blaha thought he could handle the job, then go back to the classroom when a teaching job opened.
But it wasn't long before Blaha was hooked. Looking back on those early years, he effortlessly rattled off grant funding numbers, names of companies signing up to help, and the list of movers and shakers he motivated to help build the organization.
"We were getting our shoes dirty," he said of those early days.
After eight years, the office evolved into the Wood County Economic Development Commission. The birthing, however, was not without some labor pains. With the grant funding gone, Blaha had to convince the county commissioners to pick up the tab.
"The county had been getting a free ride on federal money," Blaha said.
Public hearings were held and the commissioners voted to tack a conveyance fee on real estate transactions to fund the office.
"It was a way of making economic development pay for itself," he said.
That was the beginning of the public-private partnership that has been working nearly two decades now at helping existing companies expand, and new companies build here.
Some were tougher than others, like Bass Pro in Rossford.
"That was like giving birth to a baby elephant," Blaha said.
As Wood County was competing for the outdoor retail giant's interest, Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner was trying to woo away Bass Pro officials.
"The more desirable it is, the more pressure there is," Blaha said.
Some local projects were born only after heated public meetings, such as the Dominion Energy plant in Troy Township and the CSX hub in Henry Township.
"People accuse us of forcing things down their throats," he said.
But Blaha knows well that no project has complete support - so it's up to officials to weigh the community benefit against the loss in farmland or tax abatement.
According to those who have worked with him, Blaha balances the county's agricultural roots with the need to diversify the tax base.
"He looks at the maximum success with minimal impact," said Lane Williamson, who has served on the executive committee of the WCEDC for 10 years.
Blaha, he said, tries to understand different perspectives of a project. "He is really atuned to that."
Williamson said Blaha will listen to opinions, "but at the same time, he hasn't been afraid to take on challenges."
One of those challenges was the CSX project. "The perception was, this is going to be a train wreck," Williamson recalled. However, the project is now seen as an economic development success.
Rusty Orben, the director of public affairs for CSX in Ohio, credited Blaha for helping bring the hub to Wood County.
"He's been a great voice of reason and insight," Orben said. "He made a lot of introductions, to the right people at the right time."
That's part of what makes Blaha good at his job, according to Sue Clark, who previously worked with Blaha at WSOS, and now heads the Bowling Green Community Development Foundation.
"He's never met a stranger," Clark said. "There's a real warmth about him."
Blaha has been a great "cheerleader" for the county, she said. "He's brought an enthusiasm and a love of this area."
When Blaha retires at the end of July, it appears he is just in the seventh inning stretch of his life.
He and wife, Anne, have plans to spend more time with their children and first grandchild, return to Scotland, travel through Europe, and he hopes to write more for the Society for American Baseball Research. And of course, there's that boyhood love.
"There are a lot of stadiums I haven't been to," Blaha said.
Standing solid for growth
Tom Blaha appreciates people who don't straddle fences.
Throughout his career, Blaha dealt with several people resistant to economic growth. And he ran into plenty of elected officials reluctant to take a stand on controversial issues. But he remembers three local officials who did not wilt in the face of public protest. The three - Alvie Perkins, Dick Britten and Ned Casey - believed in the overall good of projects and did not wait for citizens to come on board.
"They stood up for what they saw as things that would benefit the whole community," Blaha said of the three.
Retired county commissioner Perkins consistently showed courage in supporting industrial growth in the county, Blaha said. While other officials sometimes sat on the fence till citizens rallied around a project, Perkins would get behind the effort and stay put if he believed it was in the best interest of county residents.
Britten, now deceased, was the Perrysburg Township trustee who openly supported an expansion of the Chrysler plant in exchange for a tax break for the company. Blaha remembers well the loud protests by citizens upset with the project. And he has not forgotten Britten's response to them. The trustee told the residents, in no uncertain terms, that they could vote him out of office at the next election if they wanted to - but he was going to support the Chrysler expansion because it was the right thing to do.
Voters continued to put Britten back in office.
Another trustee wasn't so fortunate. Casey, a Henry Township trustee, was curious about the new CSX hub being planned in his township. So at his own expense he traveled to Georgia to look at a CSX site already in place. He liked what he saw, and believed it would be good for his township, Blaha said.
"He championed it," Blaha said. "His reward for it was that he got voted out of office."
Now that the CSX hub is built and bringing in tax revenue, citizens support it, Blaha added.