Forum outlines challenges facing counties’ growth

September 14th, 2017

By Barry Rochford | KPC News - The News Sun

Over the next 10 years, it’s expected that more than 28,000 jobs will have to filled in DeKalb, LaGrange, Noble, Steuben and Whitley counties.

More than 8,700 of those positions will be additions to businesses’ workforces, Rick Farrant, director of communications at Northeast Indiana Works, told those attending Wednesday’s 10th annual economic development forum at Sylvan Cellars Event Center in Rome City.

The vast majority of those positions — more than 19,800 — will be the result of retiring workers, Farrant said.

The expected job openings present a significant challenge, because the five counties that hosted Wednesday’s economic development forum presently aren’t producing enough workers to meet employers’ needs.

“The math does not work out,” Farrant said.

But beyond simply filling open positions, if the five counties are to grow and thrive, they must do a better job of holding on to their workers and attracting more of them, said presenters at the forum.

Helping them develop skills through worker training programs, such as those offered locally by Northeast Indiana Works, Impact Institute and Freedom Academy, is one way to do that. Continuing to invest in communities and downtowns is another.

“We are not growing fast enough,” said Michael Galbraith, director of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership’s Road to One Million plan, who also provides staffing support to the Northeast Indiana Regional Development Authority.

“We have not grown fast enough for 50 years, and we have 50 years of problems to fix.”

Northeast Indiana, including the fives counties, has made significant strides in advancing community investments in recent years, most recently through 23 projects that received funding through the state of Indiana’s Regional Cities Initiative.

All five counties have projects that were awarded Regional Cities funding. Galbraith said communities are seeing the dividends from those kinds of investments.

“We are not what we were 20 years ago,” he said. “We are not a Rust Belt area in a flyover state.”

But if DeKalb, LaGrange, Noble, Steuben and Whitley counties want to retain and attract workers, one thing they must do a better job of is sharing the stories of their successes, Galbraith said, and he urged those attending the forum to do their part.

“We need you to be the braggers. We need you to tell a passionate story,” he said.

Brandon Talbert, a director at the Cleveland-based site selection consulting firm Austin Consulting, who previously worked at the Regional Partnership from 2010-2012, offered a nationwide perspective, saying the five counties’ challenges in retaining and attracting businesses and skilled workers are similar to what’s happening in other areas of the country.

While the five counties and northeast Indiana as a whole have some work to do when it comes to raising their awareness nationally, they are headed in the right direction as a result of their accomplishments, he said.

“I think it’s in the real early stages here,” Talbert said. “There’s a lot of room for improvement, but it’s a start.”