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What Inspires Economic Developers? Two Leaders Share Insight after Years of Benchmarking

June 26th, 2019

What Northeast Indiana Leaders Learned from Other Communities

John Urbahns of Greater Fort Wayne Inc. and John Sampson of the Regional Partnership discuss regional collaboration and why it's important to benchmark other communities and work together toward shared goals.

1. Why is it important for economic developers to visit, collaborate and draw inspiration from other communities?

John Urbahns (JU): It’s important to not only visit communities to understand our competition, but it's also important to see what is working for them. That’s not to say that whatever has worked for another community will automatically work here, but it is a good starting point for conversation.

John Sampson (JS): By nature, our vision for a bright future can be clouded by past experiences and historical roadblocks. This is often reflected in our language. We often say, “this is just the way we do things,” “it will never change” or “they won’t ever allow that.” Seeing first-hand what others have done, how they have broken away from outdated models or discovering companions in past constraints can be liberating in many respects. Seeing others' success or current challenges and learning how others are working to achieving new possibilities where the only discouragement existed before can unleash us from powerful and negative forces of the past. The “icing on the cake” happens when community leaders witness the benefits of benchmarks of success together. This experience can be used to form a bond of common interest, unity and hope not otherwise possible.

2. After all your travel and research, is there one characteristic that successful communities share?

JU: The one thing that all successful communities share are a group of passionate individuals or groups that want to work together to lead progress. If no one is willing to step up and lead, progress will be hard to achieve.

JS: My observation is other communities realize that there is no “one thing” or “silver bullet” that has solved all their challenges to growth and progress. All of these communities learned that by taking responsibility for confronting their most vexing challenges, amassing leadership from all sectors to work together in a sustained way with a lasting and long-term vision, they too could achieve the success that they never imagined possible. While all communities needed significant resources, support from elected officials and flat-out tenacity, none of them allowed the lack of these attributes to define their future. Each community has the same attitude. They are going to get it done for the community because it is their city, their home and their children’s future. They will not let others stand between them and their vision for a brighter future.

3. You and John have traveled together benchmarking communities for many years. How has this affected your relationship and impacted your work?

JU: Traveling and working closely together has helped form a friendship and trusting relationship that allows us to challenge one another. The trust allows us to push further together. When our community and our region see us working together collaboratively towards shared objectives, it is much easier to get them to join us on the mission.

JS: I have come to know and appreciate John with great respect for our differences and complementary value of those different skills and experiences. John and I share some common demeanors, but our experiences and backgrounds are widely different. Over the years, a bond of trust has steadily grown through our shared interest in doing whatever is best for the City of Fort Wayne and Northeast Indiana. I would not hesitate to call John for his help, guidance or to discuss a difference of opinion that we might have. Beyond being friends, we share a relationship of professional respect and trust.

4. What lessons have you (and the city or region) successfully implemented here based on learning from other benchmark communities?

JU: We have had the fortune of learning from some of the great economies and communities that have led significant turn arounds. Early on, trips to Greenville, S.C., and Providence, RI led to a reinvigorated passion for our downtown and our riverfront. A trip to Chattanooga, Tenn. led to the formation of the Downtown Development Trust that has been instrumental in securing land for the Ash Brokerage and Skyline Tower project as well as helping to facilitate the Landing project. A trip to Des Moines, Iowa led to a broader discussion about the role of philanthropy in economic development and investment within the community. A trip to Denver was a key trip in regional trust and collaboration with the local economic development organizations (LEDO) Code of Ethics and Mayors and Commissioners Caucus as outcomes. These trips have clearly had tangible impacts on the growth of our community. The goal of these trips was to have shared experiences with individuals who could come back and make a difference.

JS: In our benchmarking of the Metro Denver region, these lessons have been embraced and leveraged to the sustained benefit and growth of this region:

  1. The culture of the “family” is far more powerful than compliance to a code. This produced a sustained and powerful “Code of Ethics” which described the culture of trust and professionalism as the norm for economic development of Northeast Indiana.
  2. Never underestimate the influence of public ceremony. This lesson has been used in many ways to overtly demonstrate public and private alignment around and support for key milestones in our development history like the Talent Initiative, the Mayors and Commissioners Caucus, Vision 2020, the Road to One Million and most recently the Make it Your Own brand.
  3. The long-term and sustained benefit of regional collaboration and relationships based on trust. I am convinced that while Denver wrote the script for regional collaboration, Northeast Indiana has taken this “lesson” to a way of life that has benefitted our efforts in untold ways.

5. If you could share one lesson learned from your years of economic development leadership, what would that be?

JU: I believe that it can be boiled down to collaboration and results. If we are not working together, we will not get the desired results, but the end goal has to be the results.

JS: I think of the saying, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” No lesson could be more important for Northeast Indiana than this one. I have little interest in short-term gain for the image of achieving “wins” when this region has so far to go to achieve our full and emerging potential. Because we are not a “major” metro, it is imperative that we leverage all of our strengths, assets, resources and collaborative leadership to compete at our full strength in a global market. While speed may be important for a moment, speed alone will not achieve our objectives. We must have a long-term, persistent pursuit of being the very best of who we are. This is not about being the biggest to compete, it is about being the best at who we are. It is not about great buildings and development, it is all about being great people deeply committed to a bright future for the next generation.

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