Building a new economic development legacy

May 5th, 2016

News Coverage:

April 21, 2016

Building a new economic development legacy

Lucretia Cardenas | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

Success in economic development isn’t necessarily measured the way it used to be, particularly for small communities such as Wabash.

This is the frame of mind the community’s new economic development group’s president and CEO, Keith Gillenwater, is taking. He wants to continue the vision of his predecessor Bill Konyha, who now serves as executive director for the state’s Office of Community and Rural Affairs.

On the job just over a year, Gillenwater is looking for projects, developments, programs and the likes that maintain and sustain the community for future generations. This requires expanding upon what an economic development office can do.

Wabash County has seen a 20-year trend line of declining school enrollment. The community is losing talented students and other residents are deciding not to have as many children. As a result, the population is aging.

“These are not trends a community can sustain long-term,” Gillenwater said. “We need to ask, ‘How can we rewrite the story?’”

Konyha and other Wabash leaders began to realize that economic development was not only about chasing leads for new business prospects and offering the best tax abatements, Gillenwater said. Economic development is also about quality of place – a focus that the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership has taken as well.

“At the end of the day, we are at the front end of a generational shift,” Gillenwater said. “We can’t apply a Band-Aid.”

Wabash leaders began this rework a number of years before Gillenwater took the reigns of the economic development group. The city of Wabash, Northeast Indiana Works, Heartland Career Academy and Ivy Tech are some of the entities that began working together following the recession to ensure Wabash has a trained workforce.

Groups such as Wabash Marketplace formed to promote business and community downtown and the community saw 12 new businesses open in 2014. Business owners stepped up investments in the area, such as the $20-million refurbishment of the Charley Creek Inn and the revamping of the Honeywell Center.

The cherry on the sundae of development efforts came when Wabash received the state’s Stellar Community award in 2014. The designation opened the door to a range of economic development a redevelopment funding opportunities.

In 2015, the community began putting the funding to use. One of the projects was the Stellar Streetscape, which includes aesthetic improvements to the southern gateway to the downtown.

In addition, the Wabash community is investing in the students it does have through the Wabash County Promise, which includes a college savings account, career discovery and other activities to encourage students to pursue education beyond high school.

“We are focused on education, workforce development, building up local entrepreneurs – it’s a heck of a story to be able to tell people,” Gillenwater said of the Wabash community’s efforts to improve the quality of place in recent years.

He emphasized that this story is important as Wabash competes with other rural communities, as well as other cities like Fort Wayne, for jobs.

While the community hasn’t had a new major employer bite on the bait quite yet, some current major employers have expanded and more outside companies are coming to the area to get a taste.

“We have seen the amount of leads go up from 2014 to 2015, and 2014 was up from 2013,” Gillenwater said. “People buy into more than just a big incentive check or industrial park. We can tell them that we’re a city of about 10,000 and a county of about 35,000 and we’re putting $10 million into our downtown. We have a future workforce, we’re saving for college in kindergarten. … When people see that, we are helping ourselves. People get excited.”

Plenty of work remains but Gillenwater remains positive about the new economic development track the community is taking.