In area’s interest

April 12th, 2018

The Journal Gazette

It wasn't so long ago, economic development professionals will tell you, that it was every county for itself in northeast Indiana.

Companies looking for a new location could shop around trying to get a better deal, pitting one county against a neighbor. If one county didn't have the right setting for a business, it would have been unheard of for economic development officials to tip that business off to a better situation in another county.

A dozen years ago, that dog-eat-dog philosophy began to yield to a better approach. County economic development directors came together in the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, formed to replace regional competition with regional cooperation.

Next week, elected officials and development directors will gather in Fort Wayne to reaffirm their commitment to the partnership's code of ethics, a piece of paper at the heart of this approach to attracting and growing business.

The code sets standards of conduct for those involved in economic development activities throughout the partnership's 11 counties. It was signed by area economic development officers in 2011. But it embodies principles of “trust, professionalism and cooperation” that have been in effect since the group was formed in 2006, according to President and CEO John Sampson. The April 18 ceremony is to give new economic development directors plus county commissioners and mayors the opportunity to sign.

The code, Sampson said, ultimately makes the region stronger by eliminating duplication of effort and encouraging economic development officials to share information with other counties. It also forbids economic development officials from violating confidences with their counterparts in other northeast Indiana counties and from “selling against” another northern Indiana county. Though there have been “five or six” possible violations of the code over the years, Sampson said, there are procedures for resolving such issues. The economic development directors council has never had to invoke the “death penalty” for an unrepentant violator – cutting a county off from receiving leads from the partnership.

“Economic development is not about one county,” said Mark Wickersham, executive director of the Huntington County United Economic Development Corp. and one of the original signers of the code. “We work together for all of our counties to succeed as a region. It has really helped us to help each other.”

Because of the trust the partnership has fostered, Wickersham said, “I'm very comfortable in calling one of my neighbors and colleagues.”

A few years ago, when Novae Corp., a lightweight utility trailer company in Markle, needed to find space in an existing building, Huntington County didn't have anything that fit the company's needs, Wickersham said. So he put in a call to Bill Konyha, now chairman of the Northeast Indiana Chamber, who was then Wabash County economic development director. Konyha was able to find Novae space in a building on the edge of North Manchester.

“It wasn't much after that, that Bill called back,” Wickersham said, to tip him off to an opportunity to do business with Metronet, a fiber-optic telecommunications company.

“Prior to the existence of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, that would have been unheard of,” Wickersham said.

The idea that the region can accomplish more through cooperation than through internecine warfare “has distinguished us from other places in the state and across the country,” Sampson said. “We're not Indianapolis, we're not Chicago ... we're Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the better we work together to bring scale to our efforts as a midsized market, it is to our advantage.”

The clearest evidence that the approach works, Sampson said, is the way the area leaders came together to support the effort to leverage a $42 million Regional Cities grant into $256 million of investment in projects in 10 counties.

“The nature of the work is so highly competitive,” he said. “There's a lot at stake. We're all human and we all want to win at what we do.

“But at the end of the day, we all discovered that the competitive nature of our work before 2006 was dysfunctional for this region,” Sampson said. “We were hurting ourselves because were unwilling to work together.”