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Huntington County puts economic development on the front burner

April 2nd, 2018

By Gwen Clayton for Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly | Indiana Economic Digest

For the most part, 2018 is off to a good start on Huntington County’s industrial front.

“Calls in to clients and prospects year-to-date are triple what they’ve been in the last five years,” said Mark Wickersham, executive director for Huntington County Economic Development Corp.

This year marks Wickersham’s 11th anniversary with the economic development entity. When he started in 2008, at the height of the Great Recession, Huntington County’s unemployment rate topped 14 percent. The vacancy rate in the industrial parks was almost 50 percent. Ten years later, the unemployment rate stands at 3.9 percent and the commercial-vacancy rate is less than 3 percent.

The Huntington County EDC completed 12 projects in 2017, resulting in more than $23 million in investment and promising 178 new jobs while retaining 1,122 current jobs.

“One of the things our clients are excited about, if nothing else, is the Trump administration has reduced the number of federal regulations by simply not introducing more,” Wickersham said.

The 2017 calendar year concluded with 61,950 pages published in the Federal Register — a difference of 33,944 or 35 percent over 2016’s 95,894 pages, according to the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The organization also claims 2017’s publication size was the lowest year on record since the 61,166 pages printed in 1993 under the Bill Clinton administration.

“If nothing else, stabilizing the expansion of regulatory issues settled things down enough that companies and investment groups felt a little more confident to take a look at growth,” Wickersham said.

He also thinks the tax cuts for C corporations are stimulating interest in development.

“Almost all of our LEDOs (local economic development organizations) in northeast Indiana are seeing far more activity first quarter this year than they have for a long time,” he said.

Fly in the ointment

The county had one setback last year with the announcement of United Technologies Electronic Controls moving 738 manufacturing jobs to Mexico. Wickersham is quick to point out it was not a plant closure.

“UTEC told the Huntington facility, ‘Yes, we’re moving manufacturing to Mexico but we’re also retaining engineering, research and development, corporate functions, and customer service in Huntington,’” he said. “That side of the business continues to grow. They’ve gone from 20 engineers to 80 engineers.”

The UTEC closing is related to the highly publicized Carrier deal in Indianapolis that was a plank for Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign promising to keep jobs in the United States. Despite heavy politicking and media coverage, the plant moved operations south of the border anyway.

In February 2016, Alex Housten, UTEC’s managing director said the decision to move its manufacturing division to Mexico was to be closer to key customers.

“This plan is intended to address the challenges we continue to face in a rapidly changing industry, with a continued and steady migration of our OEM customers and competitors to Northern Mexico,” Housten told WANE TV. “The proximity of our operations to our customers is key to remaining competitive. It enables better responsiveness and flexibility to meet their changing needs.”

Employees who were affected by the decision to move the manufacturing operations to Mexico had several advantages over the average laid-off worker, Wickersham said.

“Because UTEC gave us a one-year announcement prior to laying anyone off, it gave the workforce-development community statewide and regionally an opportunity to organize and be ready to assist when the time came,” Wickersham said.

Northeast Indiana Works hosted job fairs onsite during work hours so the affected employees could meet with companies like EcoLab, Gerdau Steel Corporation, Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems, Continental Structural Plastics and others who are facing workforce shortages.

“A lot of opportunities were created by planning ahead,” Wickersham said. “Because UTEC was transparent and the workforce-development community responded appropriately, we’ve been able to make a huge difference for the transitional workers.”

Regional effect

Only 35 percent of the UTEC workforce lives in Huntington County; 65 percent commutes from other counties.

“To some extent, we’ve said this was a regional impact, it truly is, but knowing that our unemployment rate is 3.9 percent, after we’ve had significant layoffs, it means that the system of adjusting is working pretty well,” Wickersham said.

The migration of UTEC’s manufacturing operations to Mexico means that those 738 employees are now available to work for other companies in the area.

“Because of the transitional workforce, we do have some workers available who can go to work pretty quickly with minimal training,” Wickersham said. “The UTEC decision had nothing to do with the quality of the talent they had. Those were really good workers. They are in demand.”

Despite the loss of jobs, Huntington County moves forward with confidence and tenacity.

“Honestly, the national media did more harm to our community in the way it covered UTEC than anything UTEC did,” Wickersham said. “The media impact nationally was devastating to us and we’ve had to rebuild our confidence and remind ourselves that we do some really exciting things.”

Children FIRST

Some of those “exciting things” include the local schools’ robotics teams that many Huntington County companies are getting involved with.

Huntington County 4-H Robotics is part of a larger organization known as U.S. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). According to the group’s website, FIRST was founded in 1989 “to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology.” The Manchester-based, nonprofit public charity develops programs that encourage “young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math, while building self-confidence, knowledge and life skills.”

The team currently has nine engineers as mentors and approximately 20 students, including a Lego robotics team designed for middle-school students.

“Business owners are trying to grow their own talent locally with programs in the high school by encouraging these robotics teams,” Wickersham said.

“Companies are also working with the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership and others to develop opportunities for high-school guidance counselors and teachers to interact with the local industrial sector more directly and in a hands-on way to get a better idea of how to answer a student when asked, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do after graduation. Am I going to college? Am I going into the military? Or is there an opportunity for me locally?’”

The Huntington County Community Learning Center offers courses throughout the year in industrial maintenance, welding, and CNC machining. Similar courses are offered at the high school.

“If high-school students go through the CNC shop training during their normal school classroom day, there are three companies now that have said that ‘we will hire them the day they graduate,’” Wickersham said. “The reason the companies are confident to do this is because they were brought to the table to help the system create itself in the first place, so they know what the curriculum is and have had a way to tell the school, ‘this is what I need. If you teach it, I will hire that person.’ We’re seeing a lot more of that.”

Main Street

Huntington County is evaluating its downtown-revitalization efforts.

“We’re taking a look at community-development/quality-of-life projects,” Wickersham said. “With the assistance of the regional cities initiative, we have a $250,000 grant that has just finished up our last sections of outdoor-recreation/multiuse trails and by the end of the summer, we’ll have more than 90 percent of those built out and they are just beautiful.”

The county will then be able to connect to the regional trail system when it’s ready to come through the area.

“We’re seeing investments now in residential properties along the trails,” he said. “Where we haven’t seen houses touched for decades, we’re now seeing new siding, new paint and expanded footprints of houses.”

Southwest side

Renovation continues on the Etna Avenue corridor. The city, through INDOT’s Community Crossings Matching Grant and other opportunities from the state, is investing nearly $4.5 million in reconstructing the street and stormwater-drainage corridor, which has led to two different industrial announcements this year. Reber Enterprises acquired Lime City Manufacturing in January, and Apollo Caster Inc. purchased the Fulton Dairy building next door. The dairy was built in the 1940s and Wickersham said the new owners are planning to renovate the art-deco-style structure to keep it historically accurate.

News from the airport

Huntington Municipal Airport has a new manager, Steve Gray. The airport has also completed a $2.4 million apron-expansion project and constructed four new hangars for corporate and other users.

“We have some space still available for hangars and can do flight training as needed,” Wickersham said.

Funding for the expansion was through the Federal Aviation Administration, Indiana Department of Transportation and user fees collected from the airport itself.

There are currently two companies that charter air service out of Huntington. Those same companies offer freight service, avionics maintenance and engine maintenance. The airport boasts a 5,000-foot, paved runway and paved parallel taxiway, which will accommodate the maneuvering of larger-sized aircraft.

The future looks bright

“Because we have re-stabilized our industrial base, we are now able to take a comprehensive approach to economic development in our county,” Wickersham said. “For example, you’re seeing highway improvements, corridor-improvement projects and transportation. We are doing everything we can to make sure we have infrastructure available to serve the demand loads and have capacity to grow.”