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Daring Greatly: A Tribute to Northeast Indiana

March 30th, 2021

John Sampson Shares Tribute to Northeast Indiana's Past, Present and Future

To appreciate how far we have come, let’s measure from where we started. Where did we begin our journey to create a new Northeast Indiana?

In the early 2000s, while “regionalism” was sprouting up with vigor in metros around the country, it was nonexistent in Indiana aside from central Indiana’s Indy Partnership. Leaders of the Northeast Indiana Corporate Council, fed up with the lack of progress in economic development in Fort Wayne and surrounding counties, benchmarked Indianapolis and other national locations to dare that we might do better to launch a regional economic development initiative in 2006.

The mission of the newly formed Regional Partnership was focused narrowly on marketing the collective assets of the then nine counties to bring new companies and investment to the region. We set about to build a website, marketing plan and build a team to nurture site selector relationships to sell the benefits and “products” of Fort Wayne and our region.

By 2008, the Regional Partnership was “stocking the pond with projects” for the local economic development professionals at a rate of about a dozen projects each year. Reality began to set in when it became clear that our newfound site selector friends were not too impressed with our offerings; we were finding projects, but we weren’t winning deals.

National site selector Bob Ady, widely viewed as the “elder statesman” of his profession, was intentionally blunt when he addressed the investors of the Partnership, “I will never show your sites or buildings to my clients.” Bob continued to drive home his point, “If you won’t invest in your communities, why would my clients invest?”

That is where we started. We were finding economic development projects seeking Midwest locations, but we were not able to win deals; the cold, hard truth.

In 2008, Chicago Tribune correspondent, Richard Longworth’s analysis of the Midwest “rust belt” in the wake of the dramatic changes emerging in a global marketplace published his book “Caught in the Middle”. He recorded one analyst’s view of our beloved Indiana.

“There’s a malaise here. A defeatist attitude. People have been so beaten down by layoffs, they’ve lost the will. Maybe it’s the Indiana attitude. I’ve never been anywhere that is so risk-averse. There’s a lack of leadership. Indiana people seem to be content to be mediocre people in mediocre cities.”

As Mac Parker of the Cole Foundation concluded, “We had lost our swagger.”

That was a difficult pill to swallow. One which, regional leaders refused to stomach. Founders of the Regional Partnership and leaders from all sectors stubbornly refused to accept that the rustbelt reality would define our economic future. They believed in a better, stronger future, a renewed vision of what we might be.

That is where we began our journey. Slowly, with great determination, but only day-by-day, month-by-month and year-after-year, we learned how to grow trust, build relationships and identify the resources necessary to achieve momentum. We all dared to think that somehow, there must be a better way to secure our economic future.

At first, it was the Local Economic Development Organizations (LEDO) Council of the then nine counties who broke the mold to be self-governed and led by Bill Konyha. Project Maple Leaf became a key milestone when Alan Tio brought a handful of counties together to win the Iotron facility in Whitley County. They had the audacity to think differently; that city and county governments could work together to benefit all. It was a watershed moment memorialized in the courage to publicly sign a Code of Ethics to define their unique and bold brand of economic development leadership.

A huge shot in the arm came through foundation support for talent, data and research essentials through the Dekko Foundation, the Cole Foundation, the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne and the Lilly Endowment. All of them saw promise in our early efforts, embracing risk to create a new future not defined by rust and decay.

Business leaders from the Corporate Council led the way to a new future for our region when they supported the launch of Vision 2020. This was the first time when regional leaders from all sectors dared to conceive a long-term vision without respect to political borders. The process that emerged brought clarity to a future by imagining what success might look like for business climate, infrastructure, talent, quality of place and entrepreneurship.

The Mayors and Commissioners poured fuel on the fire discovering their common interests and power through the Caucus. With their alignment on critical issues, all cylinders of the region were firing. Business leaders, elected officials and many others acting together to transform U.S. 30, build out broadband and develop and retain talent for employers of the future. A new level of thinking and a deeper commitment emerged as Mayor Hickman claimed, “As goes Fort Wayne, so goes Angola.”

And then, along comes Jim Clifton’s “The Coming Jobs War” published in 2008. Jim made it clear, our determination to “do better” in economic development of these 11 counties was far more strategic and held a global impact. Jim delivered his message to us, up close and personal in 2013, “But so goes the leadership of the top 100 American cities, so goes the country’s economic future.” His message was all about local solutions, tribal leaders and alignment of the city and region to commit to winning the war. Leaders from all segments stepped up, daring to declare we were all in!

Our work together through Vision 2020 sprouted entrepreneurial support through Elevate Ventures, downtown riverfront development at Promenade, commitment to the 60% credential attainment in the Big Goal regional support for additional flights at Fort Wayne International Airport and the much-needed completion of U.S. 24 in front of the General Motors facility and Vera Bradley. The award of the $42 million in the state’s Regional Cities Initiative became the next milestone that benefitted communities throughout the region because we dared to think differently, work together and accomplish what we could not do alone.

Not any one of these was “the” most significant project. Each project built our confidence, one initiative at a time, that not only could we contend for projects, we could work together as a region to achieve objectives many thought were well beyond our reach.

All of our progress is clearly in tribute to partners like the LEDOs, Northeast Indiana Works, the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana, the Mayors and Commissioners Caucus, Chambers of Commerce and Northeast Indiana Convention and Visitors Bureaus throughout the 11 counties. Each had a role and place in our growth together and each milestone strengthened our bond and determination to reach higher. Vision 2020 morphed into a renewed vision for 2030 now with stretch goals for population, prosperity and quality of our workforce.

Collectively, this is the tribute to leaders from business, education, foundations and the public sector. Together, willing to chance trust in one another to overcome difficult obstacles, we have built the foundation for economic freedom and growth for all residents of Northeast Indiana.

Is there more left to do? Certainly. By any measure, this is not the place that Chicago Tribune correspondent Richard Longworth chronicled before. With courage, daring to think and act differently, together, we have walked away from past realities to create renewed energy, momentum and hope to create a new future for the residents and employers of our region.

That is the tribute; tangible progress working together across all sectors through trust-based relationships to overcome serious obstacles to advance the interests of local communities and their residents. There is no tribute in sentiment and passionate words. Our tribute is in progress, putting aside differences to dare greatly, to break with history to dump any form of “rustbelt” in trade for creating a new future with hope and purpose.

One final tribute remains. That is to a very unique and capable team at the Regional Partnership. This group of individuals awake each day devoted to one singular objective—business investment in Northeast Indiana. Their sole reason to exist as a team is to create a more prosperous Northeast Indiana. They were asked to join our team for their professional skill and acumen, but they were chosen for their passion to serve. Together, we have celebrated successes and suffered failure; caring for one another and coming back day after day to do the business of bringing together Northeast Indiana to dare greatly. It has been my honor to serve with them.

Dare greatly. The battle is not yet won. It is up to us to decide, will Fort Wayne and Northeast Indiana be one of the 100 cities and regions in America to win the global war for good jobs? I believe it is in our grasp and matters to the economic future of the residents of Northeast Indiana.

"The war for global jobs is like World War II: a war for all the marbles. The global war for jobs determines the leader of the free world. If the United States allows China or any country or region to out-enterprise it, out-job-create it, out-grow its GDP, everything changes. This is America’s next war for everything." - Chairman and CEO of Gallop Jim Clifton

In February, John Sampson announced his plan to step down as president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership as of March 31, 2021. 

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