Senator George Voinovich

Republican Senator George Voinvovich visited the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs and participated in a "debate" with Democrat David Wilhelm.

Photographer: Kevin Riddell

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Voinovich School partners probe economic solutions

A lively discussion on how to revitalize Ohio's economy punctuated the Voinovich School's Strategic Partners Alliance meeting on Monday.

The forum, titled "How to Kick Start the Ohio Economy: Regional Economic and Business Development," was led by Alliance co-chairs U.S. Sen. George V. Voinovich and David Wilhelm, founder of Woodland Ventures and an informal adviser to the President Obama administration.

Voinovich kicked off the event with a discussion of economic fundamentals based on his political experiences as the former mayor of Cleveland and governor of Ohio, emphasizing the importance of public-private partnerships and infrastructure.

While acknowledging the widespread poverty that affects the region, Wilhelm suggested that southeast Ohio might be stronger than the rest of the state in the face of economic downturn, based upon the region's historic struggles.

"We are still weaker than we should be politically and economically, but we are gaining strength and stature," he said, noting a number of businesses emerging from the region. 

The challenge, Wilhelm contended, is to identify assets on which southeast Ohio can build so that the region might share in the sustainable wealth of the nation.

Among southeast Ohio's strengths, Wilhelm identified its abundance of colleges, its entrepreneurial culture and the Ohio River as potential means by which the region could achieve sustainable development.

Wilhelm also noted the potential to capitalize in the areas of energy and the environment.

"The transition to a new energy regime represents all kinds of opportunities in this area," he said, adding that with its focus on energy and the environment, "the Voinovich School seems to be perfectly placed in the middle of the best hopes for the region moving forward."

Larry Triplett, president of Resource Systems, advocated a "Google-approach" to the economic downturn, by looking at the problem from an untraditional perspective.

"Instead of trying to attract business to locate here, let's figure out a way to… find a business they need to conduct, and we happen to be the people that run that business," he said.

Triplett's suggestion based on the region's assets:  distribution.

"If you draw a circumference of about 600 miles around this area, you pick up about 80 percent of the population of the United States," he explained.

Despite the region's "distinct capabilities and ideal location," Triplett said the idea needs to be further explored and incubated, perhaps at an institution such as the Voinovich School.

President and CEO of The Foundation for Appalachia Ohio Cara Dingus Brook and Director of the Ohio Department of Development Lisa Patt-McDaniel offered further insights into opportunities for regional growth. Director of the Voinovich School Mark Weinberg rounded out the conversation with thoughts on building infrastructure and utilizing assets as it relates to the school's mission. 

"The Voinovich School is the face of Ohio University to the region," said Wilhelm. "It is what is relevant on a day-to-day basis for the businesses of the region and the workers of the region, so it's exciting to be a part of it."

Established in 2008, the Strategic Partners Alliance consists of a wide range of external partners associated with the Voinovich School. Among its aims, the group exists to develop and implement practical solutions to challenges facing the region, including economic development.

NASPAA executive director traces roots to Voinovich School

Laurel McFarland has a long history with Ohio University and the Athens area as a whole, tracing back to the 18th century when her ancestors were pioneers in the Ohio Valley.

McFarland grew up in Athens because her father Richard is the director emeritus and founder of the university's Avionics Engineering Center.

McFarland is executive director of the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA), the national membership organization for public affairs, public policy and public administration graduate programs.

On Monday, she joined students and the Voinovich School Strategic Partners Alliance for lunch to commend U.S. Sen. George Voinovich on his political career and celebrate the three-year anniversary of the transition of the Voinovich School from a center to a standalone school.

"This is a great occasion for the university," she said. "Nationally, it is very exciting that OU has its own standalone school, and it reflects a trend in universities and society that these schools perform an important and unique function."

For McFarland, the visit is also exciting from a personal standpoint. Over the years, her family has kept a photograph of her ancestors picnicking on the property of the Ridges, now home to the Voinovich School.

"It gives me a very warm tie, not just to the community and the university but to the school itself, to know that 115 years ago, ancestors of mine visited the grounds where the school stands today," McFarland said.

-- Caitlyn Zachry