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11 Years, 11 Counties, One Region—A “New” Northeast Indiana

By: John Sampson on November 1st, 2017

Regional Milestones Showcase the Power of Collaboration

In the eleventh month of the eleventh year of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, the current 11 counties of Northeast Indiana have many things to shout about. This is not about bragging; that just isn’t our style. It is about appreciating that we have achieved numerous milestones well worth celebrating.

Every once in a while, it is valuable to reflect on where we have been and what we have accomplished together, if for no other reason than to encourage us to set our sights high as we look towards the future and another promising year for Fort Wayne and Northeast Indiana.

None of this was made possible by any one of us alone, but by all of us collectively. 

We have been blessed to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our chief regional partners in Northeast Indiana Works and the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana. Together we are a powerful team. Collaboration in support of employers, economic developers, foundations, not-for-profits and elected officials has proven to be the “unfair advantage” of this region.

To celebrate how far we have come, here is my “Top 11” list, recounting both successes earned and challenges overcome during the past 11 years. Undoubtedly, many of these are “no-brainers,” but some not so obvious.

In the moment, some of the most significant of the milestones may have seemed like modest accomplishments. However, we have learned that the impact of even the most minor course changes can make a huge difference as the effects of those small changes are magnified year after year. 

John’s Top 11 Regional Partnership Milestones

1. Founders (2006) 

Without question, the courage of the Regional Partnership founders to pursue a vision for regional economic development was the first, and most critical, milestone. That one decision to boldly raise $7.8 million to birth a concept led to numerous unanticipated positive benefits by building trust between communities and professionals long mired in competition. 

Founding Members of the Regional Partnership

2. LEDO Council (2007) 

The founding bylaws of the Regional Partnership created a council composed of a single, professional economic developer from each of the original 9 counties and chaired by the CEO of the Regional Partnership. Wabash County entered the Partnership in 2007, and Wabash Economic Development Professional Bill Konyha, now President of the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana, promptly stepped forward to suggest that the Local Economic Development Organization's (LEDO) Council must be chaired by the local economic development organizations. Bill’s leadership raised the bar for responsibility and accountability by the economic developers to strengthen the influence of the council.

3. Lilly Grant (2009)  

The $20 million grant for the original Talent Initiative was a “watershed” event as we focused on the needs of employers for an educated and skilled workforce pipeline. The grant ultimately created these outcomes:

  • Outfitted the Steel Dynamics Inc. Keith Busse Technology Center at Ivy Tech with state-of-the-art CNC equipment for training
  • Endowed chairs for systems engineering and wireless technology at Purdue Fort Wayne
  • Launched six New Tech high schools across the region
  • Provided for incumbent worker training in the throes of the recession

4. The Great Recession (2009-10) 

Yes, not only did we survive, our gritty Hoosier determination shined as we emerged from one of the worst global recessions in history. The recession had devastating impacts on lives and entities both public and private. Clearly, we rebounded stronger and tighter as a region for having suffered the challenge together in support of residents and employers.

Iotron Industries

5. Project Maple Leaf (2010) 

Since closing the deal with Iotron Industries in Columbia City in Whitley County, we have held up this economic development project as the proof case that we had achieved a rare state of trust and collaboration in our region. Led by Alan Tio of the Whitley County Economic Development Corporation, this project demonstrated the power of regional collaboration and the impact of strengthening the culture for economic development to increase business investment in the region.

6. Vision 2020 (2010) 

This process began in 2009 and led to an economic summit in 2010 attended by more than 1,000 regional residents and leaders. The process established a long-term vision for building a region competitive in a global marketplace by confronting “quadrant 4” challenges. As a direct result, the Regional Opportunities Council (ROC), the investor board of the Regional Partnership, has expanded from just 30 to over 130 leadership investors committed to achieving a bold vision for Northeast Indiana.

7. Metro Denver Regional Leadership Exchange (2011) 

Little did we know how powerful this exchange of ideas would be with our hosts at the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation. Northeast Indiana business leaders, elected officials and economic development professionals descended on the Metro Denver region to discover their unique recipe for collaboration in this vibrant and expanding region. Denver shared freely their most critical lessons rooted in a cultural code of ethics, the power of public ceremony and the surprising influence of their caucus of regional mayors. Each of these lessons have become cornerstones in this region’s economic development culture.

8. Passage of Right-to-Work (2012) 

Our efforts as a region and state to support passage of this controversial legislation sent a clear message that Indiana was determined to be a national leader in the Midwest for business climate and job creation. This was the final step in declaring that Northeast Indiana formally and deliberately seceded from the Midwest’s “rust belt.”

9. Regional Transportation Spine (2013) 

A hallmark collaborative process and decision by the LEDO Council and the Mayors’ and Commissioners’ Caucus was the designation of a regional “spine” for transportation infrastructure based on economic impact. This decision led to a prioritized list of regional transportation projects to support INDOT planning and legislative advocacy. It was this process that led to the $30 million Lafayette Center Road extension, which was unveiled Nov. 1, 2017 at a ribbon-cutting ceremony. 

10. Jim Clifton (2013) 

We “discovered” Clifton’s book the “The Coming Jobs War” as the best articulation for why America must win a global war for jobs and economic freedom. Through Clifton’s personal visit to speak to the community and the ROC, we cemented our commitment to “tribal leaders” and local solutions to economic growth. Clifton’s book is a must-read for community and business leaders in Northeast Indiana.

Regional Cities Initiative

11. Regional Cities Initiative (2015) 

The full impact of Indiana’s Regional Cities initiative will not be realized for years to come. Clearly a shot in the arm for quality of place assets in Fort Wayne and other regional communities, Northeast Indiana has committed to our own Road to One Million plan for retaining and attracting skilled talent and increasing our population growth rate. Not surprising, our region has fully satisfied the state’s $42 million match requirements and committed over $255 million in just one year to projects in 10 of 11 counties. This initiative also facilitated a formal and welcomed entry of Kosciusko County and the City of Warsaw into our region.

So, what would your list include? Regardless of what stands out to you, big or small, we are a “new” Northeast Indiana today.

A recent article from Food & Wine Magazine shares these words: “These days, however, it seems that Fort Wayne is becoming flat out cool.”

We can all feel the momentum, the energy and the change in how people outside our community view Northeast Indiana and the pride we feel for our region.

The sum total of our 11 determined, collaborative years has propelled us to a new level of performance, expectation and leadership.

Together, we are vastly different today than when we made one, rather innocuous decision to work together to grow this region’s economy and raise prosperity for all residents. 

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