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Recruiting top talent to move into area

October 16th, 2017

By Sherry Slater | The Journal Gazette

Ash Brokerage. Franklin Electric. Shindigz. Sweetwater Sound. Vera Bradley.

Local employers in numerous, unrelated industries share a common problem: When they try to recruit top talent, the candidates can be skittish about leaving the fast lane for Fort Wayne.

That's where Jeana Regan – or someone like her – comes in. After falling in love with a Huntington man, the San Francisco native moved here in 1988. She knows big city life, and she knows the hidden charms a midsized city can offer.

Regan, a relocation and recruiting specialist, calls job candidates before they arrive to learn their wants and needs. She tailors a local tour to each unique situation, including visits to synagogues, vegetarian restaurants, elementary schools and biking trails.

Until now, that kind of white-glove service was available to only a few, those willing to pay $100 an hour. But with the creation of a new nonprofit, local entrepreneur Lynn Reecer is offering specialized tours to any employer who's interested in impressing job candidates.

Northeast Indiana Talent Attraction Inc., which last week launched a website at www.neintalent.org, is now raising money to hire an executive director to oversee ongoing fundraising and volunteer recruitment.

Local economic development officials are pleased.

“I think it's great that there's somebody who provides that service,” said John Urbahns, Greater Fort Wayne Inc.'s executive vice president for economic development. “Competition for talent is fierce among companies and among cities.”

Meeting a need

Reecer, who reluctantly followed her doctor husband here in 1993, understands the challenge of creating an exciting, rewarding life in a new, smaller city. The couple previously lived in Dallas, Indianapolis, Chicago and Columbus, Ohio.

“I came here dragging my heels,” she said. “But within six months, I fell in love with it.”

Even so, Reecer saw an opportunity to improve her adopted hometown.

Various events, including the 2001 accidental death of a bicyclist, highlighted the Aboite area's lack of trails at that time. Reecer wanted to improve safety for walkers and biker.

Her drive to make a difference resulted in Aboite New Trails, a nonprofit that created miles of trails that are now connected to the Rivergreenway, a series of local walking and biking paths.

Those who worked closely with Reecer on the nonprofit credited her with building a board that included people with the skills and resources necessary to make the project a success. Reecer was named The Journal Gazette's Citizen of the Year in 2009 for her efforts.

These days, her day job is at Reecer Properties, where she is president and managing broker. But she is also committed to contributing to the community's economic development efforts.

The two interests intertwined seven years ago when she launched a relocation service that offered personalized tours of the community, based on job applicants' – and trailing spouses' – interests.

The real estate firm offered the service to employers for a fee, which was waived if the person was hired and ended up buying a home using Reecer Properties.

Although numerous employers, including those listed above, have used the service, some balked at the cost. Also, some skeptics wondered if it wasn't just a means of soliciting real estate clients, Reecer said.

A friend suggested she could drop that baggage and step up growth by spinning it into a nonprofit. She did, and another passion project was born.

Tipping the scale

Reecer struggled with how to scale up the relocation service, making it available to employers throughout northeast Indiana at a nominal cost.

She landed on the following formula: Companies that want to support economic development in the region will be asked to donate to the nonprofit and to identify enthusiastic employees willing to serve as ambassadors.

Whether or not the ambassadors will be paid for the time spent providing a personalized tour might be left to individual employers. That detail has yet to be worked out.

But Reecer is adamant that lifelong local residents are not qualified to sell the virtues of northeast Indiana. They don't have sufficient credibility, she said.

It's only by living in bustling big cities that a person can appreciate the more laid-back lifestyle that Fort Wayne and northeast Indiana offer, she said.

Ideally, she said, a job candidate flying in from Denver would be paired with someone who previously lived in Denver. The same for Chicago, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Seattle and so on.

Northeast Indiana Talent Attraction couldn't afford to keep that many specialists on the payroll, Reecer said. So she's planning to ask the yet-to-be-hired executive director to recruit and train enthusiastic volunteers.

By creating an extensive network of ambassadors, Reecer hopes Northeast Indiana Talent Attraction wouldn't put an undue burden on any one person or employer.

Jeff McDonald, senior vice president of human resources for Sweetwater, likes Reecer's vision.

“That sounds awesome,” he said.

Sweetwater has used Reecer's relocation service selectively for job candidates and will consider using it more now that the cost will be more attractive to employers that do high-volume hiring.

McDonald, who has been with Sweetwater for 12 years, is well-versed in recruiting talent. He estimated that half of the music instrument and audio equipment retailer's 1,200 employees moved from outside the area to work for the company.

Although McDonald asks interviewees about their interests and takes answers into account when he leads new employee tours, he acknowledged some candidates might feel squeamish sharing some lifestyle details with a prospective or new employer.

Quality of place

The steady drop in the U.S. unemployment rate has made attracting qualified job applicants a top priority for companies across the country.

Urbahns, of Greater Fort Wayne, said employers investing in new and expanding operations are “looking for vibrant communities where employees want to be.”

That's why local economic development efforts have concentrated lately on projects including the downtown baseball park, developing Fort Wayne's riverfront and expanding the region's trails network. 

“The quality of place matters, absolutely,” Urbahns said. “It matters to the employer, but it also matters to the employee.”

John Sampson, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, described Reecer's vision as “a really neat concept” bound to wow job interviewees.

“It creates a very favorable impression when customer service levels exceed what (job candidates) expect,” he said.

That's especially important for Indiana communities. 

“The overall state has gone through some rough patches when we haven't seemed very open and welcoming,” Sampson said, referring to a one-time law that allowed business owners to cite religious beliefs as justification for denying service to homosexuals.

Sampson, a Visit Fort Wayne board member, was among the architects of northeast Indiana's Road to One Million plan, which set a goal of increasing the region's population to 1 million by 2030. 

Conventional wisdom among economic development experts is that regions boasting that many residents receive opportunities that aren't offered to less populated areas, Sampson said.

Local economic development officials agree that the only way northeast Indiana will hit the mark will be if more people are drawn to the region.

The birth rate isn't robust enough to reach 1 million residents any time soon.

Sampson hopes Northeast Indiana Talent Attraction will be one of numerous efforts that get the region closer to its goal.

“We're not going to get to 1 million people by accident,” he said. “The only way we're going to get there is by being intentional.”