Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

Was Ohio runner up in the Sears derby?

Ohio made a pitch to bring Sears' headquarters to the Buckeye State, but where did it finish in the bidding?
Ohio made a pitch to bring Sears' headquarters to the Buckeye State, but where did it finish in the bidding?

When Gov. John Kasich took office, he promised to put Ohioans back to work. So it was anticipated that he would focus on the economy during his year-end speech to reporters last month at the governor’s mansion in suburban Columbus.

Kasich described the new economic atmosphere his administration has worked to create, one that is stable and does not over-regulate businesses.

He then introduced Mark Kvamme, president and interim chief investment officer of JobsOhio, the state’s new, privatized economic development corporation, to share details of the state’s job creation efforts.

Kvamme, a venture capitalist from California, talked about state officials’ new, aggressive attitude toward attracting companies to Ohio. Specifically, he talked about the state’s recent push to pry the headquarters for Sears from Illinois. Ohio was said to have offered the company $400 million in incentives to bring its headquarters here.

"We are now going on the offensive," Kvamme said at the Dec. 19 event. "The one big one that you all reported on is Sears."

"Sears has decided through special legislation in Illinois to stay in Illinois. But don’t forget, we beat out every other state, including Texas."

Indeed, Sears turned down Ohio to stay in Illinois, where lawmakers passed legislation with about $275 million in tax breaks and property tax reductions for Sears. There also were reports that Texas was in the running to land the retail company.

Why does PolitiFact Ohio care to check Kvamme’s statement after Sears decided to stay in Illinois?

For one, Kvamme’s assertion that Ohio beat out Texas has not been reported elsewhere as far as we can tell. Further, if Ohio’s pursuit of Sears is symbolic of a broader economic development strategy for the state, it is worth checking out.

JobsOhio is a publicly-funded private nonprofit corporation that was established in Kasich’s first year in office with the help of the GOP-controlled legislature. Over the objections of Democratic lawmakers, JobsOhio was shielded from Ohio’s public records laws.

So examining Kvamme’s statement also would give PolitiFact Ohio a chance to shed some light on JobsOhio’s operations.

First we checked with JobsOhio for any evidence to back up Kvamme’s claim. It didn’t offer much.

"The Sears consultant stated to JobsOhio that the final two states in consideration were Ohio and Illinois," JobsOhio marketing director Marlon Cheatham said in an e-mail.

When we asked for more details, Nate Green, a project manager for JobsOhio, said that a consultant for Sears told Ohio officials that Illinois and Ohio were the final two states in consideration.

Green explained there was no written correspondence to Ohio about its efforts in comparison to Texas or Illinois. Green would not provide the name of the consultant. He suggested we contact Sears to confirm Ohio’s second-place finish.

Sears was a dead end. A spokeswoman said the company would not rank other states that tried to lure the company. When asked if Sears worked with any consultants, company spokeswoman Kim Freely said, "we wouldn’t provide that information."

We also checked with the governor’s offices in Texas and Illinois and neither could confirm that Ohio finished ahead of Texas.

Unable to verify Kvamme’s statement with others, we are left only with assurances from JobsOhio that Ohio was the runner-up.

The point of this examination isn’t to cast doubt on Kvamme’s trustworthiness. However, JobsOhio’s inability to back up his statement – and the nonprofit’s exemption from public records laws – raises the question of where Kvamme’s claim should land on the Truth-O-Meter.

Ohio clearly was competing with other states for the Sears headquarters, so there’s an element of truth in Kvamme’s claim. But was this boast that the state finished No. 2 reality or bravado.

And without public record access, the statement can’t be confirmed through JobsOhio’s records.

For that reason, we’re unwilling to rate his claim on the Truth-O-Meter. Rather, we’ll leave it to readers to decide on his credibility and whether the weakening of public record laws that renders it unverifiable is a good thing.