Northeast Indiana takes the lead in workforce development, musical instruments

February 14th, 2018

By Michelle Nash-Hoff | IndustryWeek

It’s interesting to find out how certain regions have become centers for specific industries. I recently had the opportunity to interview economic development and business leaders in northeast Indiana to learn about the region’s advantages for manufacturers and what types of industries have flourished in the region. One of these unique industries is musical instrument manufacturing.

During my interview with John Sampson, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, I learned that the region is highly concentrated in manufacturing.

Sampson said, “We cover 11 counties and collaborate with other counties in the south and east. The business climate is very favorable for the Midwest –  we rank #2 in taxes and are in the top 10 for other factors. We have a very supportive and responsive part-time state legislature to the interests of employers. The corporate tax rate is down to 6% and is headed to 4.9% in 2021 in a tiered decline.

“On our website, we list the target industries [see below]. Back in 2006, we partnered with the regional workforce investment board, Northeast Indiana Works, for a drive to improve skills training. We make sure that all the training is targeted to what industry needs and made sure that students get transportable certifications. We got a $20 million grant in 2009 for a Talent Initiative to align the region’s talent efforts to the direct needs of defense, aerospace and advanced manufacturing industries. Ivy Tech is the principal partner in providing training, designing skills training for employers. They have a center for advanced manufacturing and have career technical studies and apprenticeships for high school students.

We have united with other organizations and are trying to better connect students with the trades. We have a statewide organization, called Conexus Indiana, to organize the logistics of the programs devoted to skills training such as CNC machining, welding, etc. Conexus Indiana brings together a diverse advanced manufacturing and logistics community to build tomorrow’s skilled talent through industry-endorsed classroom curriculum, experiential learning and earning opportunities, and industry partnerships.”

From their website, I learned that there are three major universities: Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW), Ivy Tech, Northeast, and Indiana Tech. The Indiana Manufacturing Extension Partnership (Indiana MEP) is in Indianapolis, but Indiana Purdue University is a satellite MEP site, located about 100 miles from Fort Wayne. 

Ivy Tech is the largest public postsecondary institution in Indiana — and the largest singly-accredited statewide community college system in the entire country. The system has 45 campus and site locations in more than 75 communities, and serve nearly 160,000 students a year.

I asked if the region has any makerspaces and he replied, “Yes, we currently have two Maker Lab locations as part of the Allen County Public Library: The Main Library and Georgetown. Both labs have 3D printers, 3D scanners, electronics workbenches and other specialized equipment.

“We also have a new makerspace in development at the former General Electric campus where GE made electric motors. The campus is now being redeveloped as a mixed-use campus, called Electric Works. There is an opportunity for another makerspace to be incorporated into the 1.2 million sq. ft. campus.” 

I learned that it’s 47% more affordable to buy a house in Fort Wayne ($116,000) compared to the national average ($222,000), and property tax is capped at 1%.

The region has a high rate of employment in the manufacturing sector: 28.8% compared to the national figure of 8.9%. Also, Indiana was the first right-to-work state in the Great Lakes region of the U.S.

The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership is partnering with regional workforce development organizations like Northeast Indiana Worksand WorkOne Northeast career centers to invest in the region’s talent. Northeast Indiana Works oversees 11 WorkOne Northeast career centers in northeast Indiana and provides Skill-Link training at little cost to employers. “Skill-Link is a program that offers certification-based training tailored to employers’ specific skill needs. Employers select high-potential employees for the training, which promotes talent retention, career-pathway development, and, in many cases, leads to promotions and pay increases. WorkOne Northeast assists employers in filling positions left open by the promotion of employees who complete Skill-Link training.” 

The Northeast Indiana Regional Profile states that Northeast Indiana “serves as a strategic distribution hub for businesses targeting the Great Lakes and Midwest. The region is located only two hours from Indianapolis and three hours from Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Columbus, Ohio. The region is served by two major interstate highways, I-69 (North/South) and I-80/90 (East/West), also known as the Indiana Toll Road. Fort Wayne International Airport is home to four major carriers: Allegiant Air, American, Delta and United. There are also two Class I freight railroads, CSX and Norfolk Southern, servicing the region.

It states, “The region currently ranks eighth in best tax environments in the United States and the best in the Midwest based on the 2016 State Tax Environment Index by the Tax Foundation. This business-friendly tax climate creates a thriving community for innovative businesses and growth…Due to legislation in 2011, Indiana’s corporate income tax rate fell by 2%. This was the continuation of a scheduled multiyear reduction, which will ultimately see the corporate income tax rate reduced to 4.9% by 2022, which would make Indiana’s the second lowest corporate tax rate of any state levying the tax.” The current corporate income tax rate is only 6%, and the personal income tax rate is 3.23%.

The profile also states, “The region has an abundance of water and natural gas, as well as a reliable supply of electricity. The region’s largest municipal water system, Fort Wayne City Utilities, has an excess water capacity of more than 35 million gallons per day. Our excess water supply is a competitive advantage that fuels our growing target industries, such as food processing and agriculture.”

According to a 2016 Target Industry report from Community Research Institute, research identifies the region’s target industries in Northeast Indiana as:

  • Advanced Materials
  • Vehicles
  • Design and Craftmanship
  • Medical Device & Technology
  • Food & Beverage
  • Logistics & E-commerce

The top industrial employers are:

  • Zimmer Biomet
  • General Motors
  • Steel Dynamics
  • LSC Communications
  • BFGoodrich
  • TI Automotive
  • Frontier Communications

Manufacturers of Note

To gain a better perspective about the relationship of the creative community to musical instrument manufacturing, I interviewed Dan Ross, vice president of Community Development for Arts United of Greater Fort Wayne, Inc.

Ross said, “Arts United is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1955. We function as both a united art fund and local arts agency, much like a cultural affairs office for the arts community. Arts United provides arts advocacy and promotion, high capacity for creativity through grant support, the arts campus, and creative community development to more than 70 arts and culture organizations in Northeast Indiana. We own the three different facilities – the Auer Center for Arts and Culture, the Arts United Center, and the Hall Community Center for the Arts – and maintain and service the buildings. Arts United cross-promotes events held in our facilities and other arts and culture events available to the community. In addition, resident organizations housed in our facilities receive subsidized rates at about one-fourth of the typical cost for renting office space in downtown Fort Wayne.

“We provide a variety of back office services for 19 arts and culture organizations, including a health plan that provides affordable health care payroll services, and a shared box office.

“Arts United works with economic development organizations to utilize the assets of the arts community, because a creative arts community is beneficial for employers to attract talent from other parts of the country. Arts and culture are an amenity and improve the quality of life in a place. Because of the vibrancy of our community, Fort Wayne is drawing more non-residents to the area.”

He added, “In 2016, we had support from the Indiana Arts Commission to commission the Community Research Institute at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne to conduct a review of the Creative Economy for the state of Indiana.

When I inquired as to how the creative community contributed to the concentration of musical instrument production in the region, he explained that Fort Wayne has one of the United States' largest dealers in musical equipment for musicians, recording studios, schools, churches, concert sound companies — Sweetwater Sound. Ross, said, “The company was founded in 1979 by Chuck Surack in the back of his VW bus, and since then has outgrown several buildings and constantly expanded its staff to become the leading retailer that it is today.” 

From their website, I learned that in 1995, “Sweetwater established an informational website: www.sweetwater.com, and by 1999, most of their inventory was available for purchase online.” The company grew to the point that in 2006, they had a new 44-acre corporate campus designed and built. “The new headquarters, consisting of corporate offices, a distribution center with warehouse, and a retail store, also includes the Sweetwater Productions recording studio complex and 250-seat LARES-equipped performance theater.”

Ross said, “Sweetwater now has over 1,000 employees. Sweetwater attracts employees from all over the country by providing high paying jobs and opportunities for extensive training.  Sweetwater employees are active leaders and performers in the arts community. Employees both gain valuable experience with the variety of arts organizations in the community, and contribute to their success.”

Sweetwater has attracted instrument manufacturers to the area because they are the number one online distributor of musical instruments nationally. Also, Purdue University is establishing its first School of Music on its Fort Wayne Campus, including a music and arts technology degree program starting next fall housed on the Sweetwater campus.  

Ross added, “The history of making musical instruments goes back over 100 years in the region. The majority of orchestra and band instruments are produced in northern Indiana. One local company, Fox Products, manufactures 80% of the world’s bassoons and oboes. Hugo Fox played for the Chicago Symphony, and he moved back to his hometown of Fort Wayne and started to make his own bassoons and oboes.” These jobs are highly skilled and highly paid because of the craftsmanship required to make many of the complex musical instruments. New technology and scientific research have improved the manufacturing processes.

As we ended the interview, Ross said that he was a musician himself, playing the trumpet. He plays for the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, and his career has been a combination of arts administration, teaching and playing music. He studied music in college, so it feels good to combine his creativity with community development goals to enhance Fort Wayne’s history of the creative arts and craftmanship. 

We can see that northeast Indiana offers a good business climate for manufacturing compared to other states in the Midwest. In my next article, we will learn more about how the region’s focus on design and craftmanship led the development of the musical instrument industry from interviews with three of the companies making musical instruments.