Collaboration is key to economic growth in northeast Indiana’s cities
By Ali Brand | Input Fort Wayne
As New Haven’s Mayor Terry McDonald prepares to step down in 2019 instead of seeking re-election for a sixth term in office, his administration has a lot to be proud of.
Just last year, companies like Sauder Manufacturing Co. from Grabill, Indiana, and Multimatic Inc., based in Canada, chose the city for their new facilities. And in the last five years, New Haven’s own Continental Diamond Tool has expanded three times.
But as McDonald reflects on his legacy, he admits that these wins in the business sector are not created and enjoyed by New Haven alone. Instead, they’re part of a larger shift toward county and regional collaboration that has taken place across northeast Indiana during his time in office.
When he first became mayor about 19 years ago, he remembers how cities in the region were struggling to advance on their own, competing with each other for economic growth and business attraction.
Even as collaborative organizations like the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership and Greater Fort Wayne Inc. emerged, a competitive, individualistic mindset persisted across many cities.
But over the years, McDonald and his administration in New Haven have adopted a new philosophy. While still he advocates for local governments to stay close to their people, he has learned that they can cooperate with other area governments for the greater good of the community. They might even be more effective that way.
Looking back, his legacy hints that one city’s success in attracting, retaining, and expanding business opportunities ultimately advances its surrounding county and region.
Creating an environment for business
When McDonald came into office in 1999, he knew that if he wanted to give his city a fighting chance, he had to attract new businesses to New Haven and support the development of companies already there.
So throughout his five terms in office, business attraction and retention played a large role in his work. As a result, he experienced firsthand the growth of New Haven’s local economy. But despite the city’s progress, he’s careful not to take too much credit for himself.
“Mayors do not create jobs,” McDonald says. “What we do is establish an environment where jobs can happen.”
That’s why creating a business-friendly community has been his administration’s priority from day one.
Along with other government officials and business executives throughout the region, McDonald serves on the board of Greater Fort Wayne, Inc., the chamber of commerce and economic development organization for Allen County.
Greater Fort Wayne Inc. essentially acts as a project manager between county governments and businesses looking to relocate. When companies are interested in Allen County, Greater Fort Wayne Inc. is their first point of contact for guidance in the process of site selection and meeting area approvals.
In 2018, the organization was named the Indiana Chamber of the Year for surpassing its goal of recruiting 100 new investors in 2017 while increasing its retention rate to 92 percent, which is better than the national average for chamber organizations.
John Urbahns, Executive Vice President of Economic Development and Incoming CEO for Greater Fort Wayne Inc., says the goal of the organization is to market all of Allen County’s cities as ideal places for companies to expand.
The business-friendly environment that McDonald and his administration have created in New Haven makes their city particularly attractive to executives.
“New Haven has seen a lot of growth under Mayor McDonald,” Urbahns says. “He’s been a great partner to work with.”
New Haven is attractive to businesses because it was one of the first communities to participate in The Permitting Excellence Coalition (PEC). PEC’s initiative is to streamline the permitting process in order to make planning and zoning for businesses simpler. McDonald has also been dedicated to building relationships with business leaders firsthand.
“When a business owner can call you directly at your desk, that gives them a lot of confidence in local government and that they’re welcome here,” McDonald explains.
But creating a premier business community in one city of a county or region is only half the battle. To create a conducive environment for business, McDonald has learned that broader collaboration is key.
Collaboration is Key
One of the main ways regional leaders work to strengthen collaboration among northeast Indiana’s governments is through the Mayors’ and Commissioners’ Caucus.
Every month, mayors and commissioners from the region’s eleven counties meet to discuss issues in their communities, consider methods for better cooperation, and set goals for the future.
In 2018, one of the caucus’ four main policies focused on the growth of northeast Indiana’s workforce.
Urbahns says McDonald was instrumental to the inception this caucus. It took shape when he and other community leaders attended a conference in Denver, Colorado, which included a session about a monthly meeting held among 40 mayors in the Denver metropolitan area.
After hearing how this cooperation among the mayors bolstered their individual communities, leaders in northeast Indiana decided to create a similar caucus of their own. They have largely adopted the philosophy that northeast Indiana comes first—before their individual cities or counties. But that doesn’t mean that each city’s wins or losses aren’t important to the group.
McDonald says New Haven’s economic prosperity largely depends on Fort Wayne and the region, as a whole.
“Fort Wayne is the economic hub of the region, and New Haven is the little brother to the east,” McDonald says. “How Fort Wayne goes, so does the rest of us.”
According to McDonald, without Fort Wayne, northeast Indiana would be a much poorer area, since it is the largest city and metropolitan center, which has amenities that smaller communities lack. However, perhaps a less visited side of the equation is that Fort Wayne, in turn, would not be able to grow and develop like it is today without its regional cities, either.
McDonald explains that millions of dollars in revenue flow into Fort Wayne from its surrounding cities like New Haven for restaurants, tourism, entertainment, and more. Citizens across the region visit Fort Wayne for concerts and sporting events, like Komets or TinCaps games, which allows these amenities to thrive.
“All those venues would cease to exist if the region didn’t come together,” McDonald says.
He explains that northeast Indiana is also a mobile society where employees often commute from one city to another for work.
For instance, Lippert Components’ plans to construct a plant in New Haven by 2019, and when they do, it will have a ripple effect on the region, providing jobs and wages to regional residents. Most businesses in the area rely on other local companies for services or supplies, too, creating a money turnover that boosts local economies.
“If a business is in northeast Indiana, we all win,” McDonald says. “We have the same common goal: Making Allen County—making the region—the best place it can possibly be.”