Bluffton on food forefront

March 29th, 2015

News Coverage:

March 29, 2015 1:03 AM

Bluffton on food forefront

Hopes to build $5 million center to aid entrepreneurs

Patrick Murphy For The Journal Gazette

Sgt. Mike Miller is a 19-year veteran of the Bluffton Police Department, which provides a steady paycheck.

But local plans for a food incubator – which would provide technical assistance for startup companies – could create another revenue stream.

The law enforcement officer, with help from his wife, Dawn, and children Ben, Alex and Emily, have developed a barbecue recipe sauce that Miller thinks has market potential. If he can mix up his ingredients in a state-certified kitchen like the one planned for the Bluffton Food Innovation Center, Miller believes the masses might acquire a taste for his Smokey’s Pit BBQ sauce.

“I will be able to comply with state health regulations and sell my sauce to stores,” Miller said last week.

The proposed Food Innovation Center – with an estimated $5 million price tag – became a concept in 2008 after a feasibility study through a partnership with the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center in Fort Wayne. Additional studies also supported the idea of a “regional food cluster strategy,” according to Wells County Economic Development.

In February, the first drawings of the vision were unveiled.

“We’ve approved conceptual plans,” Bluffton Mayor Ted Ellis said. The Bluffton Common Council last month gave a final OK on plans it had tentatively approved last April. Those plans cost almost $30,000, which was split with the Wells County Chamber of Commerce/Economic Development.

Ellis said the early exploration of a food incubator stalled after the 2008 financial crisis and recession. But with the economy improving, plans are being resurrected.

Some funding sources seem to be opening up, the mayor said. The city expects to seek funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Indiana Department of Agriculture and other agencies that may be interested. “But eventually we’ll have to look locally,” Ellis said.

The mayor and other officials believe a food incubator in the region – where agriculture is the economic base – makes sense. Bluffton, the county seat of Wells County, is about 20 miles south of Fort Wayne. Many of the city’s 10,000 residents are directly or indirectly involved in farming, Ellis said. The late U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York spent much of his summers in the area where his grandfather had a farm, according to the city’s website.

Ellis said the food incubator will help attract or develop entrepreneurs who will grow businesses, create jobs and pay taxes. Businesses located in the incubator would pay rent and benefit from being in a “cluster” with other like companies, along with getting technical assistance from experts from sources such as Purdue University.

At least for now, the proposed 40,000-square-foot facility is commonly referred to as the Bluffton/Wells Food Innovation Center. Planners have discussed whether to establish the center in the empty Kitco Building at 200 E. Spring St. If that building is selected, it will be gutted and reconstructed, said Timothy Ehlerding, executive director of Wells County Economic Development.

“But it could give a real boost to the economies of Wells County and Bluffton,” he said. Depending on funding, Ehlerding expects work crews to begin gutting the building in about 12 months.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Ellis said.

While plans remain flexible, the center is expected to have four components:

• A food incubator, including a test kitchen, to provide technical assistance and information on getting product to customers. It will cater to startup companies as well as individuals.

• A storage and warehousing area.

• A “Farm to Table” center and a food hub focusing on getting locally produced foods to retail outlets, restaurants or hospitals.

• An education and enjoyment center concentrating on the process of getting food to the table as well as career opportunities in product production or restaurant management or ownership.

Bluffton’s incubator will fit nicely into the area’s food cluster, which includes farmers, food processors and those who market the product, said Fred Bean, vice president of business development strategy with the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership. The center’s lab will be particularly helpful to those considering careers in the food industry or entrepreneurs trying to develop products.