NIRP won’t wait for quality of place investment to grow population

April 21st, 2017

By Doug LeDuc | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

Northeast Indiana’s population buildup got off to a slow start.

Community leaders in the region identified a growth rate goal of about 2 percent - but the population grew by less than half a percent.

The goal was outlined late in 2015 in a Road to One Million economic development plan, which won northeast Indiana $42 million in state support for quality of life projects designed to help the region’s population increase to 1 million by 2031, from 789,015.

The slow start is nothing to worry about, but there are things the region is doing to pick up the pace of its population growth this year, and John Sampson, president and chief executive officer of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, said they require serious support.

Growing problems

The growth goal was set to match population expansion rates of best-in-class regions, partly to meet a need northeast Indiana employers will see to fill more than 100,000 positions by 2031 as a result of retirements and business growth.

“To our credit this region was one of the fastest in the recovering from the recession. We created jobs at very fast rates for a sustained period of time coming out of the recession. Only now, eight years later, have we exceeded our employment of pre-recession time,” Sampson said.

Now, economic development officials in the region hear consistently from many employers about worker shortages a variety of industries face, and “we’re all aware the population growth is not fast enough to sustain the growth of employers,” he said.

Increasing wages often succeed in attracting necessary skills, and the region’s per capita income has been increasing, he said. But the need to compete on the price of goods and services sold can limit the usefulness of that approach.

Ambitious goals

Population estimates recently released by the Census Bureau and analyzed by the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business showed the region’s population expanded last year by 0.4 percent, to 777,898 from 775,166 in 2015.

An analysis the center undertook of seven years of population data, starting in 2010, also provided some perspective on the ambitious nature of the region’s growth goal.

During the course of six years, northeast Indiana’s population increased by only 2.4 percent, or 18,161 residents. The growth rate from year to year did not reach half of a percent without rounding up any year after 2010.

It took the region the last five years to grow its population just 2 percent, and at the top of the range within its sights, it would expand by that proportional amount annually.

An economic analysis conducted for the plan concluded the target population expansion rate should be “two to three times our current growth rate, so 1.5 percent and above,” Sampson said.

Years when the region’s population growth underperforms could lengthen the time required to reach the target, but also could be offset by years of over performance, he said.

“We’re going to miss a year here and there and we’re going to have recessions along the way, mild ones and severe ones, but we still have to make the right decisions to help the community’s growth,” Sampson said. “All the other economies we benchmarked also went through the recession, but were able to maintain their population growth.”

Reliance on quality

Massive investment in the region’s quality of life will help it in a major way to reach the population growth goal, but the impact will not kick in overnight, he said. Last year was a year for vetting many of the projects.

Action underway that could yield more immediate impact includes contributing to and promoting a user friendly portal listing the region’s job opportunities, reinforcing northeast Indiana’s deep reputation of being friendly and welcoming, and offering many more paid internships and work-based experiences.

Universities in the region are more attuned to the need for internships because they deal with a group of students every year who are looking for opportunities to put their new found skills to use, but a number of companies have vibrant internship programs.

Fort Wayne Metals, for example, volunteered to share its internship program experience with other companies in the region to help them learn more about that approach to discovering and nurturing talent.

Scott Glaze, the company’s CEO, told businesses interested in the program that about 30 percent of its new full-time hires begin there as interns.

“Glaze has challenged the partnership to develop one paid internship for every 100 employees,” Sampson said. “It is a number for us to shoot at as far as developing a viable internship program.”

Some of the students gaining valuable skills at universities in the region are from other countries, he said, and a friendly, welcoming atmosphere could help make the legal immigration required to put permanent roots down in the area seem worth the cost and effort.

“The other key thing is for you and me to become ambassadors for this region immediately. We have come from a time when we were very modest about our accomplishments … and that’s not going to cut it anymore,” Sampson said. “We have to do something different and better when it comes to population growth. We’re capable of it; this is not a pipe dream.”

Following examples

Officials at a number of cities, which have achieved rapid, impressive economic development success, have shared their best practices in a very collegial way with visiting community leaders from northeast Indiana. And “all these things people have shared with us are certainly things we are capable of doing,” he said.

A blog posting on the regional partnership’s website offers some analysis of last year’s population change with help from the Stats Indiana and Community Research Institute at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

All but one of the region’s counties saw more births than deaths last year, and the combined totals produce a net gain for northeast Indiana of 3,928 births over deaths.

Every county in the region saw more of its residents leave than it was able to attract from other parts of the country, for a net domestic migration loss of 1,930.

But, every county attracted and employed more international immigrants than it lost, for a net gain of 1,016.