Fifty-eight community and business leaders will travel to Omaha, Neb., on Sunday for a three-day informational exchange. They will tour and talk to business and community leaders looking for best practices in that city that might be useful for Akron.
The trip is the second led by the Greater Akron Chamber, following a 2011 event that was called an “InterCity Visit” to Milwaukee. That trip was attended by 40 Akron leaders.
GOJO Industries Chairman and CEO Joe Kanfer was an honorary chair for the Omaha planning. Having gone to Milwaukee, too, he said there are several reasons why the Omaha experience will help Akron.
“The most overt reason ... is looking for ideas from a successful city that we might borrow or modify that would allow us to make progress here in Akron. It’s always easier to get started when you’ve actually seen someone else do it. It’s a risk-lowering activity by saying ‘Gee, if they can do it, we can do it,’ ” Kanfer said.
Others traveling besides Kanfer include longtime Akronites Mayor Don Plusquellic and Akron Children’s Hospital President and CEO William Considine as well as newcomers Ken Babby, owner of the Akron Aeros, and Mark Masuoka, the recently named executive director and CEO of the Akron Art Museum. Masuoka just moved from Omaha this summer.
Kanfer said Akron will benefit from the interaction that the visitors have with each other.
“We might not be copying things directly. We have a different mix of assets and players,” he said.
Equally important, Kanfer said, is building what could be called social capital among a wide group of people.
“When you experience something together, you build a different kind of social capital than sitting around a board meeting or sitting around in Akron,” he said. “You’ve got a shared activity and a common bond and it increases the likelihood that we will all be wanting to explore those ideas because we were at the inception.”
Greater Akron Chamber President Dan Colantone said Omaha’s growth and economic strategies are impressive.
The chamber just completed a five-year economic strategy plan and is about to start another five-year plan concerning public-private partnerships, talent and innovation. Omaha’s strategy through its chamber is the same, he said.
Besides the benefits of Akronites spending time together, the group will start relationships with counterparts in Omaha, Colantone said. There are still active relationships from Milwaukee, he said.
Omaha is the home to five Fortune 500 companies, including Union Pacific Railroad and ConAgra Foods (with brands such as Hunt’s, Pam and Orville Redenbacher’s). It’s also the home to famous investor and billionaire Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway.
S. Theresa Carter, president of Omnova Solutions Foundation, noted Omaha and Akron are of similar size and have goals centered on economic development, an urban core and talent attraction. Carter was an honorary chair of the trip.
The third chair, Virginia Albanese, president and CEO of FedEx Custom Critical and immediate past chair of the chamber, had planned to go on the trip, but is unable to attend.
Bob Bowman, Akron deputy mayor for economic development, said visits to other cities are beneficial for future projects.
“A lot of these public-private partnerships can’t get done without the partners. That’s just because of the limitations in many cases of available capital or it can sometimes reduce the costs involved,” Bowman said.
“When you take leadership like this and they see what’s going on, when you need to interface in the future on projects, they’re more likely to engage,” he said.
Kanfer is pleased the group is larger and includes people who went on the Milwaukee trip and new participants.
Attendees are paying $1,750 and $2,495 for the all-inclusive trip, the latter being the price for a charter flight instead of traveling from Akron-Canton Airport through Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Sponsorships helped defray some costs.
Kanfer said the participation is “proof the word got out from the last trip that it was a good experience. [Someone] could easily have said, ‘Oh, I went once, I don’t need to go again,’ ” he said.
Colantone is already thinking ahead to the next experience.
“The bigger question is, ‘What do we do in two more years [for the next trip],’ ” he said.