Cleveland Businesses Tell Obama How He Can Help

President Obama traveled to Cleveland with several members of his cabinet Tuesday, to hear about the successes and setbacks of small businesses there. The picture that emerged was that of a president who envisions government as a junior partner in business development, not an obstacle.

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President Obama's message these days is win the future. He's talking about jobs and innovation in battleground states. And the president traveled to Cleveland yesterday with several members of his Cabinet to hear about the successes and setbacks of small businesses there. The picture that emerged was a president who envisions government as a partner in business development, not an obstacle.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Ohio is a perennial battleground in White House politics, so President Obama spends a lot of time here. Each time he visits Cleveland, Mr. Obama says, he sees more evidence this once-Rust Belt city is reinventing itself.

President BARACK OBAMA: Not only are big things happening here, but they're emblematic of what's happening all across the Midwest and all across the country.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama says he came to Cleveland to learn more. He wanted to hear directly from more than 100 local entrepreneurs about their success stories and their frustrations.

Pres. OBAMA: What would make it easier for you to grow? What would make it easier for you to create new jobs? How can America help you succeed so that you can help America succeed?

HORSLEY: Implicit in these questions is the idea that government has an important role to play, even if it's not a starring role. Whether providing seed capital for innovation, college training for the workforce, or new highways and Internet connections to move goods and ideas to market, Mr. Obama sees the government as a vital supporting player.

Phil Davis's company makes miniature microwave ovens, and he thinks he could sell a lot in Europe if he could afford a retool for the continent's different voltage requirements.

Mr. PHIL DAVIS (Microwave Manufacturer): That little bit of capital would help us grow.

HORSLEY: One suggestion was to offer a federal tax break to encourage more angel investors, as the state of Ohio already does.

Youngstown businessman Michael Garvey is updating the company his grandfather started, shifting from bronze castings to precision measurement and manufacturing. Garvey says that demands a more educated workforce.

Mr. MICHAEL GARVEY (Owner, Precision Measurement and Manufacturing Business): You know, you can't win if you don't have the horses. So you have to have the horses in the stable to win.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama talked about how businesses and colleges can work together to design courses that would be more useful.

Cleveland's business development efforts are concentrated in areas like biotech and advanced energy. But not everyone at yesterday's meeting was so high-tech. Joe Maceli runs his family's cheese business. Thanks to a recent SBA loan, which Mr. Obama called one of the government's tastiest investments, Maceli will soon be able to double his production of ricotta cheese.

Mr. JOE MACELI (Maceli Dairy Products Company): We're looking at adding about 60 jobs, and it will make Cleveland the ricotta capital of the world.

HORSLEY: Whatever Cleveland becomes the capital of, its economy is evolving. And that evolution's being helped along by groups like NorTech, a non-profit that gets both private and government funding to encourage key, high-tech industries.

CEO Rebecca Bagley says the big, industrial manufacturers that used to dominate Cleveland didn't leave a lot of room or reason for entrepreneurial upstarts. But that economic culture is changing.

Ms. REBECCA BAGLEY (CEO, NorTech): We're coming out of the recession better than we went into it. So it's a really exciting time, I think, to be in northeast Ohio.

HORSLEY: While President Obama underlines the government's role in that excitement, Republicans counter the less the government does, the better. That disagreement is sure to play out in upcoming budget battles, though Mr. Obama all but glossed over it yesterday.

Pres. OBAMA: There's no room for division between business and labor and Democrats and Republicans. When it comes to competing for jobs and industries, we are on one team, and that is the American team. We will rise and fall together.

HORSLEY: The push for innovation here in the Midwest is really nothing new. One hundred, twenty-five years ago today, a graduate of nearby Oberlin College invented an economical way to produce aluminum, and Charles Martin Hall's discovery gave birth to an industry. It's impossible to know if somewhere in yesterday's small business meeting was the next Alcoa. But dozens of entrepreneurs and the president certainly hope so.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Cleveland.

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