Greater Fort Wayne unveils initiatives to take offerings to next level

June 14th, 2019

By Sherry Slater | The Journal Gazette

Greater Fort Wayne Inc. officials on Thursday unveiled four initiatives designed to advance the 5-year-old economic development organization's offerings.

New programs include a graduate-level leadership class and an effort to allow established business leaders to sponsor fledgling entrepreneurs.

The presentation was part of the organization's annual meeting at the Arts United Center downtown. More than 550 members registered to attend.

CEO John Urbahns sat down with The Journal Gazette one week before the meeting to outline the new initiatives. He was joined by Brenda Gerber Vincent, Greater Fort Wayne's vice president of community and corporate impact, and Ellen Cutter, vice president of economic development.

Urbahns said the program additions, which fit into the organization's mission, won't stretch the 21-member Greater Fort Wayne staff too thin.

"It's really just taking some things to the next level," he added.

Among the four plans is the Bridge Investor Program, which launched during the meeting. It encourages established local business leaders to sponsor a fledgling entrepreneur for membership in Greater Fort Wayne, which serves as the local chamber of commerce.

Membership benefits include access to all Greater Fort Wayne events and programs, including some programs specifically for startups. Members also have access to meeting rooms in the organization's offices.

"It's about closing the gap between entrepreneurial and corporate" business people in the community, Urbahns said.

"You would think these two groups are connected, but they're really not," Gerber Vincent added. "I think it strengthens both sides."

Sponsors pay $1,000 a year and must commit to at least five years of participation. Entrepreneurs are asked to pay $50 for the first year to ensure they are committed to the experience, Gerber Vincent said.

Participants will be invited to two annual Bridge program events that bring established business leaders and startups together. After that, the relationships need to evolve organically, but both mentorship and investments are possible, she said.

"We've had great response form the corporate community, so we're really excited to launch it," Gerber Vincent said.

Jim Cook, Chase market executive for northern Indiana, has become increasingly involved with the local entrepreneur community. Cook said he's discovered that many people aren't aware of the varied local resources available. That's one reason he plans to support the Bridge program.

It also makes good business sense, he said. Today's startups could become tomorrow's Sweetwater Sound, Vera Bradley or Ash Brokerage – and a Chase commercial loan customer.

"That's absolutely the end goal," Cook said.

He believes the program will be especially good to give minority-run startups a leg up.

"I really think it's a great initiative," he said. "It's an outreach, and I think it's awesome."

So far, 15 sponsors have committed to the program, Gerber Vincent said. She will help pair sponsors with an entrepreneur. The Greater Fort Wayne website began accepting entrepreneurs' applications Thursday night.

Greater Fort Wayne officials also plan to initiate a five-year economic development strategy for Allen County. That work is expected to begin this fall in cooperation with the city of Fort Wayne, Allen County and other community partners, Cutter said.

The strategy is expected to address issues such as what investments need to be made to prepare the community for growth, including infrastructure expansion, supply of industrial and office buildings, and downtown and neighborhood growth.

The third announcement is that Greater Fort Wayne will partner with city officials to promote qualified Opportunity Zone opportunities. 

An Opportunity Zone, according to the IRS website, "is an economically distressed community where new investments, under certain conditions, may be eligible for preferential tax treatment."

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, signed at the end of 2017, added the zones to the tax code. The first zones, which were nominated by individual states, were designated in April of last year.

RTM Ventures, the developers of the former General Electric campus, successfully lobbied Indiana leaders to ensure Electric Works' census tract would receive the designation, for example. Nine other Fort Wayne census tracts have also received the designation.

Opportunity Zones were created as an economic development tool "designed to spur economic development and job creation in distressed communities," according to the IRS.

Investors can defer paying capital gains taxes if they invest those gains in an Opportunity Zone development – even if they don't live, own a business or work there, according to the IRS.

Cutter has already been contacted by multiple out-of-state groups interested in investing. At least six cities have assembled investor prospectus packets to distribute. Greater Fort Wayne hopes to release its own version by mid-July, she said.

Greater Fort Wayne and the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership are organizing an education session on Opportunity Zones for investors, service providers and community leaders from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. on June 27. The session, which is sponsored by First Federal Bank, will be at the Grand Wayne Center.

Greg Allen, First Federal's market area executive, said the city's Opportunity Zones "present a really exceptional opportunity to get investments" in those neighborhoods. The education session will focus on sharing information and correcting some misconceptions.

Possibilities for investment include warehouses, manufacturing plants and multi-family housing by out-of-state investors and those living in the community, Allen said.

"It could be a game-changer," he added.

Cutter said investing staff efforts in attracting Opportunity Zone investors falls under the organization's mission by "attracting new capital into the market."

Gerber Vincent, who oversees the Leadership Fort Wayne program, will also direct Leadership 2.0 Next Level Leadership, the fourth initiative unveiled during the annual meeting.

The program, which will include an eight- to 10-week curriculum, will be open to graduates of Leadership Fort Wayne and the Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana's Leadership Institute.

More than 1,300 people have graduated from Leadership Fort Wayne, whose signature program is a yearlong exposure to the community and its challenges. Gerber Vincent said some people wanted more.

The 2.0 version will have a different, accelerated program that includes lessons on how to read a financial report, how to assemble a budget and how to create a business plan, she said. The program will launch later this year.

Thursday night's annual meeting included a review of business investment in the community during 2018. Companies unveiled plans to invest almost $337 million total within Allen County. The projects included 33 business expansions and relocations; 2,445 new jobs; and $115 million in new annual payroll.

Wendy Moyle and John Dortch also were celebrated as the first recipients of Greater Fort Wayne Women's Network Champions of Change Awards. The awards, presented at a luncheon in April, were designed to recognize those who mentor and empower women in Allen County.

The Champions of Change Awards replace the Athena Awards, which were created by an international organization. Greater Fort Wayne had to pay a fee for rights to present a local Athena award.

"We just thought we could do something a little more authentic to Fort Wayne," Cutter said during last week's interview.

Moyle is co-owner and vice chair of Shindigz. She also founded 100+ Women Who Care Fort Wayne, a nonprofit that has engaged hundreds of women to meet quarterly and give of their time and resources to local nonprofits.

Dortch is owner and president of Preston Joan Group Inc., The Penta C.S. Group LLC, Fort Wayne Ink Spot LLC, and AJ&J Production LLC. He is also CEO of the Fort Wayne Black Chamber.

Greater Fort Wayne moved its annual awards for large and small businesses of the year to December.

Related Articles:

Greater Fort Wayne Inc.: 2018 was a banner year for organization, Allen County from News-Sentinel