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Halting per-capita income decline is just the start

December 7th, 2012

News Coverage:

Halting per-capita income decline is just the start

RICK FARRANT - rfarrant@fwbusiness.com

Friday, Dec. 07, 2012 at 5:40am

The announcement from the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership on Nov. 26 had a certain air of victory: The region had arrested the decline in per-capita income, stalling a vexing trend that had imperiled the area’s economic stability.

But as momentous as the development appeared to be, the partnership’s leader is not about to stand pat.

“We have not arrived,” said NEIRP President and CEO John Sampson. “We simply have some encouraging feedback. In the scheme of things, we’re not going to change our strategy

“Our investors say to us: ‘That’s great news. Now, get back to work.’ We’ve got to apply energy to continue in the right direction.”

Northeast Indiana’s per-capita income rose from 79.4 percent of the national average in 2010 to 79.9 percent in 2011, according to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. The increase, area economic-development officials said, appears to signal a halt to a once-steady slide that began in 1994, when the region’s per-capita income percentage was 96.2.

The region’s low point — 79.1 percent — was registered in 2008.

The cause for optimism among area leaders is not based just on a one-year rise. John Stafford, director of the Community Research Institute at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, noted the variance between 2008 and 2011 was less than 1 percent.

“Three years of basically flatline compared with past history,” Stafford said, “is a relatively long period to be at essentially the same point.”

Area economic-development leaders have used the per-capita income figure as the chief barometer for measuring the region’s economic health.

“We kind of agreed that (per-capita income) told the right story,” Sampson said. “It’s personal, not corporate. I don’t like (using) jobs because you can create great jobs but still lose prosperity in the region.”

Sampson attributed the improved per-capita income percentage to an increasing willingness among the region’s economic-development stakeholders to work together.

Mike Packnett, president and CEO of Parkview Health and chairman of NEIRP’s governing board, also believes there is a growing, positive shift in how northeast Indiana presents itself to business interests and others.

“People are very curious about what we say about ourselves,” Packnett said. “And I think what we’re seeing more is our conversation about ourselves is changing.”

Packnett is among those who were buoyed by the latest per-capita number.

“For me, it’s such a significant time for us because I’ve said for four years that the hardest work we’re doing is to stop the decline,” he said. “I think it signals, even in the face of a lot of economic headwinds still, that there really are enough good things going on throughout the economy in northeast Indiana that we are gaining momentum.”

And yet, Sampson said, there are still threats to the progress, and one of those is the looming “fiscal cliff” nationally.

He is even more worried about internal challenges.

“I’m more concerned that we’ll fall back to the old ways,” Sampson said. “That people will get complacent or decide this is too much work.

“Sometimes you’ll hear (people using) language of the past. It’s not the language of where we’re going.”

Sampson doesn’t know what the optimum end game will be in the push to elevate per-capita income — and in turn the local economy. But he’s certain the region hasn’t reached its peak yet.

“I don’t know where the top is,” he said. “I just know our potential is so great. Eighty percent does not represent our capability.”