Ellen Cutter helps Greater Fort Wayne thrive

In the world of economic development, someone rarely seeks it out as a lane when they start their professional career. Ellen Cutter, the Chief Economic Development Officer at Greater Fort Wayne Inc. (GFW), didn’t necessarily seek it out but was always headed down that path.

“My background is in urban planning. And I didn’t know that was a career until my senior year of college,” Cutter said. “I went to undergrad on a scholarship. Part of that scholarship was focused on service learning. During my senior year, I did what was called an urban immersion semester, and the entire semester we did volunteer work with community development organizations throughout the city. That’s really where I learned about community and economic development.”

Cutter planned to go to law school after earning her undergraduate degree, but she had a different calling. She joined AmeriCorps, which is the Peace Corps that serves just the United States, and went west.

“My placement was in rural Oregon and my lifelong mentor out there, my first boss Chuck Daughtry, and that was focused on economic development. I worked for a port district and got to do a little bit of everything as a community of 1,200 people,” Cutter said.

It was her first venture west of the Mississippi, and it allowed her to see the vastness of the country and experience different cultures.

“It was amazing. I would recommend that program to anybody. It’s interesting because you can choose by area focus. I learned so much and met my lifelong mentor and friends. Being in a smaller community with very few resources, had my pick of projects to work on. There was no shortage of work to be done,” Cutter said.

She went on to work for a community and economic development consulting firm based in Atlanta. Then, Cutter became the director of the Community Research Institute at Purdue University Fort Wayne. During that time, she collaborated with GFW on the Northeast Indiana Target Industries report and as the project manager of the “Road to One Million Plan” for the IEDC Regional Cities program, which secured $42 million for quality of place projects.

Cutter started working for GFW in 2016 and has been involved with several initiatives. However, there is one project that stands out and means the most to her.

“I’m most proud of our Allen County Together plan. We developed it during COVID. We made good use of a bad time. It’s the first county-wide economic development strategy we’ve ever had. We won the Indiana American Planning Association Award last month for excellence in economic development planning,” Cutter said.

Outside the office, Cutter loves to be out in nature with her three daughters or go get a burger from J.K. O’Donnell’s with her husband. She’s been involved with the Fort Wayne Museum of Art and is very passionate about the art assets in the region.

“We can be very focused sometimes on projects, infrastructure and capital expenses, but at the end of the day, community is about people. There must be room to talk about what brings people joy and happiness. It’s not just talking about the inputs. We’ve got to talk about the outputs. I am motivated by what makes people happy to live here,” Cutter said.

Her advice to women who might be interested in economic development is “go for it.”

“Whether it’s policy, government, philanthropic, politics, private sector or real estate, there’s lots of different avenues you can take,” Cutter said. “It’s something that every community in America is thinking about investing in working on.”

Cutter believes it’s always important to find strong allies. She’s been very vocal that GFW President and CEO John Urbahns has been a great ally.

“I remembered feeling like my voice was not validated unless my male boss was with me. And I no longer feel that way,” Cutter said. “I have seen when we would go to board meetings at different economic development the diversity has grown and that’s been very helpful and helping me figure out how to lead and find my voice.”

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