Wired For Revitalization – Cleveland Enterprise (Summer 2000)

June 23rd, 2000

Wired For Revitalization:WIRE-Net’s mission is to bring a much-neglected part of Cleveland a little TLC.

By Lori Ashyk
From Cleveland Enterprise – Summer 2000

When the Westside Industrial Retention Network (WIRE-Net) was launched in 1988, Cleveland’s manufacturers had been beaten up and bruised by a recession. WIRE-Net hoped to help them heal.

Twelve years later and looking much healthier, many of those same companies can credit WIRE-Net with offering them more than band-aids. The non-profit organization acts as an intermediary between businesses and the community by providing employment training and referrals; what it calls workforce development services; industrial real estate services, which includes a “brownfields” development project; and technology assistance to companies on Cleveland’s West Side.

“We didn’t know in 1988 there would be such a niche for this kind of work, says executive director John Colm. The niche was carved originally by three community development corporations: Cudell Improvement Inc., the Detroit-Shoreway Community Development organization, and the Stockyard Area Development Association. Those groups realized that in addition to neighborhood organizing around the issues of housing and commercial revitalization, the industrial employment base of their West Side communities needed to be stabilized and increased.

Today, WIRE-Net serves directly or indirectly some 700 manufacturing companies employing 30,000 people. It has 173 member companies. Within the past two years, it has added two more community development groups, Westown Community Development and Bellaire-Puritas Development Corp., which serve the city’s far west side, into its fold. Those groups now have more direct working relationships with WIRE-net and representatives on its board of directors.

“We have a much more diverse customer base now than when we started,” Mr. Colm says. He added that in its early days, WIRE-Net assisted many companies struggling to climb out of the recession. They often were older businesses founded on supplying the auto and durable goods industries. Some didn’t make it. Those that did now supply a much wider range of industries.

“They’re much stronger companies now; they’re innovators, they’ve proven they can survive,” Mr. Cohn says of WIRE-Net’s members.

WIRE-Net, which is funded by a combination of state and local grants, foundation grants, membership dues, and program revenues, has earned its stripes mainly in the area of workforce development. Its “Hire Locally” program matches the needs of employers with training programs at local schools such as Cleveland city schools, Polaris Career Center, and Cuyahoga Community College. It also coordinates a 30-week precision machining technology program with NASA Glenn Research Center.

At Destiny Academy, located within Max Hayes High School in Cleveland, students learn “work-readiness” skills such as workplace behavior and ethics, showing up on time, and, in general, meeting the expectations of employers. They also meet potential employers and have job – shadowing opportunities.

Wired For Revitalization

Peter Accorti, vice president of Talan Products, Inc. and president of the board of directors of WIRE-Net, says the group’s services have been invaluable to him as an employer at a time when labor shortages have made businesses “desperate for help.” He says students who work with WIRE-Net often show greater results from their training than do students from more traditional vocational programs. “The reality is that companies don’t have the luxury of on the-job training anymore,” he says. “We have to get people trained faster.” Five years ago, businesses on the West Side may have been growing about 5 percent a year, he says. Now they’re growing, in aggregate, 15 percent a year and need workers who are ready to work productively the day they’re hired. Mr. Accorti also notes that WIRE-Net helped Talan, a metal stamping company, set up its own apprenticeship program. Talan has hired students from Destiny Academy for its program.

“There’s a lot of value in a WIRE-Net membership,” says Mr. Accorti. He added that WIRE-Net’s small, “non-bureaucratic” staff Of 12 is easy for businesses to work with. The average WIRE-Net member company has only 40 employees, and often doesn’t have the resources or time to do extensive training.

The organization has been recognized for its effectiveness. Public/Private Ventures, a Philadelphia based non-profit group which studies the effectiveness of social programs on youth, evaluated WIRE-Net’s effectiveness in a 1998 study called “Working Close to Home.” It concluded that among WIRE-Net’s strengths are its ability to “target” employment areas such as metalworking and to hone in on the needs of businesses, as opposed to focusing solely on finding jobs for the unemployed. Thereby, it makes sure that those businesses can actually use the people it trains, the study says.

Although more than half of WIRE-Net’s budget is dedicated to its employment programs, another major area of growth in recent years has been its industrial real estate efforts. In the early 1990s WIRE-Net conducted a survey which found that one reason companies leave their West Side base is because they want to expand and simply don’t have the space. In order to fulfill its mission of retaining and expanding industry on the West Side, WIRE-Net decided to develop a 15-acre industrial park near West 65th and I-90.

“It turned out the land wasn’t green,” says Mr. Colin, referring to the need to clean up the property by digging up underground tanks, testing for groundwater contamination and digging out lots of dirt. WIRE-Net assembled the parcels and cleaned up the property with much assistance from the City of Cleveland and the State of Ohio. A coalition of state, city, community development groups, and WIRE-Net has been working since 1992 to bring the park to fruition. One of WIRE-Nees member companies, B&R Machine Co., has its headquarters under construction there, and more land is available.

Mr. Cohn sees the real estate development side of WIRE-Net’s operation growing rapidly in years to come, as healthy businesses on the West Side seek to expand.

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