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People mover

October 16th, 2018

By John Sampson for The Journal Gazette

Today's most urgent threat to economic growth for cities, regions and states across the country is the availability and access to a skilled workforce aligned to the needs of employers. The bottom line is clear: We all share a common interest in developing, retaining and attracting the skilled workforce for today and our economic future, and we must embrace and respond in kind to the urgency and magnitude of this challenge.

Given northeast Indiana's aggressive recovery from the recession and the current low unemployment rate, our employers are suffering more than their fair share of this challenge, and we can expect our plight to deepen.

The hard truth is that northeast Indiana suffers an average loss of 1,000 people age 15 to 29 each year. Thanks to a healthy birth rate and a consistent in-migration of international residents, we are growing. However, the contribution of these factors is insufficient to overcome the outflow of retiring boomers from our regional workforce.

A bright spot in recent history occurred in 2015 through legislative action. Indiana's Regional Cities Initiative was enacted and signed into law by former Gov. Mike Pence. This initiative was designed to nudge significant investment by local governments and the private sector in quality-of-place amenities. The ultimate objective of this investment in Indiana's regional cities was to turn the tide of out-migration and increase our rate of population growth.

While our state has achieved an incredible resurgence of economic position in the Midwest over the past decade, our work is not done. Our success in commitments for new job creation throughout the state has left tens of thousands of jobs unfilled.

We now must turn our focus to being a standout for talent retention and attraction. We must grow faster by retaining skilled workers, bringing natives back home and being welcoming to international immigrants. On this new battleground in the jobs war, we must become a magnet for the best talent and compete with other communities that are ahead of us in investing in quality-of-place assets. Resting on our past accomplishments and current momentum is not an option in this global war for talent and business investment.

The Regional Cities Initiative has already demonstrated positive results. Though these are early returns, the initial estimates are promising in both tangible and intangible effects. In just three years, the Regional Cities Initiative has spawned 64 quality-of-place projects in 18 counties, affecting 1.6 million Hoosiers. Statewide, this produced a new capital investment of $1.2 billion; 70 percent from the private sector. Indiana's nudge through the Regional Cities Initiative was $126 million funded through a tax amnesty program. By all measures, a remarkable return.

While many projects are still under construction, analysis by Ball State economist Michael Hicks predicts 7,960 net new residents in the affected counties over a three-year period.

To bring this closer to home in northeast Indiana, we expect half of that population growth to occur in our 11 counties.

Annually, this growth of 1,300 new residents would more than offset the annual net outmigration of the domestic population, a step in the right direction.

In the 2019 legislative session, our legislators will consider enabling round two of Regional Cities Initiative funding and authorization of a Regional Development Tax Credit.

While it is unlikely that previous winners of Regional Cities Initiative grants would receive additional funds, the benefits of investment in quality-of-place and regional collaboration must be extended to more Indiana cities if we are serious about growing the state's population overall. Notably, a Regional Development Tax Credit would enable all rural and urban communities to enjoy the benefits of development tools previously reserved for only a few metros.

These actions are not without challenge. Success is not guaranteed. Legislators will require the full support of community leaders, especially from regions such as ours that have derived significant benefit from the original Regional Cities program. Indiana cannot afford to delay in the competition for attracting and retaining the workforce of tomorrow.

It is clear that the Regional Cities Initiative is producing dramatic returns. Let's stand together to accelerate our progress and encourage our legislators to do so as well.

Related articles: Regional Cities wins high praise in analysis from The Journal Gazette

Collaboration is key that unlocked Regional Cities from Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

Qualitative Impacts of the Regional Cities Initiative from Ball State Indiana Communities Institute

Regional Cities Initiative: Preliminary Economic Impacts from Ball State Center for Business and Economic Research