Celebrating Whitley County EDC’s 25th Anniversary
I recently had the honor of speaking at the Whitley County EDC’s 25th anniversary celebration about my experiences working with the EDC for more than seven years. It was a special opportunity to reconnect with so many friends who continue to contribute to the vitality of the Whitley County community. I shared with them three themes that I saw at work in Whitley County and that I believe are at the foundation of impactful economic development organizations.
1. Good enough isn’t good enough
That message was on a billboard facing eastbound traffic on U.S. 30 for what seemed like years. It was employed by the Whitley County Community Foundation to headline the Whitley Forward initiative. It’s such a great descriptor for standout economic development efforts, which are found in communities that are not content with the “me too” programs and services that everyone else offers. Instead, they look for how to build capabilities that are relevant to the existing clients they serve and that build on the unique assets of their community. In Whitley County, that effort started more than 20 years ago with creation of the U.S. 30 TIF area, investments in water and sewer infrastructure, and creation of Park 30 Business Center. In recent years, other Northeast Indiana communities have pursued investments such as countywide broadband Internet, third-party certified industrial sites, and business incubator facilities to set themselves apart.
2. Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.
That message was the theme of a Whitley County EDC Outlook meeting a few years ago. It’s a quote that points to the opportunity to build a team of local staff and volunteers to launch new programming specific to the community’s needs. The Agribusiness Initiative, Medical Device Initiative, and Small Business & Entrepreneurship Initiative are examples of programs we launched in Whitley County, which increased our staff from two fulltime positions to a team of eight fulltime, part-time, and contract positions. In each case, we found passionate, skilled staff and volunteers to launch and sustain those efforts. We looked for people who could connect with our clients, gather voice of the customer feedback, and build scalable, sustainable programming. As economic development organizations compete to bring ideas, talent, and capital to their communities, these kinds of initiatives build engagement and generate impact.
3. People do business with people they know, like, and trust.
Economic development starts and ends with relationships among business decision makers, community leaders, and many other stakeholders. It takes a long time to cultivate relationships that will lead to meaningful business opportunities. And that’s okay! I shared an example at the EDC event of a business now launching in Whitley County that is the result of an introduction made around four years ago. What I didn’t share is that the individual making the introduction was involved with a company that located in the community nearly four years earlier (I should mention that company’s location decision was due in part to an introduction by yet another regional business owner!). When it all comes together, clients call before they even know what the problem or opportunity is, because they look to the economic development team as trusted advisers who can help them to frame the issue and work through it together. Much of the built-in value (and personal fulfillment) of economic development comes from the relationship building and matchmaking that is at the foundation of the work.
An instructor at an economic development course once told our class there are four noble professions in life: doctors build physical health, pastors help with spiritual health, teachers build knowledge, and economic developers help with jobs. I will add that economic developers and the organizations they support are keystones in their communities, serving as unique connectors and conveners who contribute to the success and vitality of the areas they represent.