Region, counties take the Road to One Million at own pace

March 7th, 2019

By Chelsea Boulrisse | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

The Northeast Regional Partnership has spent the past several years mapping out a route to grow its population and labor force in hopes of renewing regional prosperity and pride.

The Regional Partnership embarked on this path of growth around five years ago when evidence of a labor shortage in northeast Indiana became clear.

“We really started to notice the fact that employers had a harder and harder time filling jobs,” Michael Galbraith, director of the Road to One Million, said. “We started to see that was going to be the next big business problem. We started to try and figure out if there was a way to retain our best talent and make the northeast Indiana region a more attractive place.”

The solution was the “Road to One Million” initiative that has looked at the way northeast Indiana has marketed itself in the past and improved upon those strategies to attract people in target areas and occupations. Each of the 11 counties was tasked with growing its population. In Whitley County, Jon Myers, executive director of the Whitley County Economic Development Corp., did the math and set a goal for his county’s growth.

“For us to meet our share of new folks, I figured we would have to get 727 people to move to Whitley County a year between now and 2030 to do our part for the Road to One Million, which translated to a little over 9,400 people between a year ago and 2030,” Myers said.

With goals in place, plans and actions started to take shape at both the regional and county level. The Regional Partnership had a particularly significant boost when it was awarded $42 million from the state’s Regional Cities Initiative. That money has helped get a number of “transformative,” projects off the ground.

One of the projects, still in its early stages, demonstrates promise for Whitley County businesses. According to Myers, this project has the region keeping an eye on nearby areas like southern Indiana or even Michigan and Ohio that have similar businesses such as manufacturing companies and higher unemployment rates. Additionally, this program is also keeping watch for notices submitted to the Department of Labor, which signify a high number of layoffs at a company or a company closure, and advertising career opportunities in northeast Indiana.

The goal is to catch the eye and imagination of those people looking for a new job or maybe even a fresh start and show them that northeast Indiana could be the place for them.

“The city of Columbia City and the EDC put money in and we did social media ads in those specific area codes saying if you’re looking for a job, we’ve got the jobs and places for you to live,” Myers said.

The newest addition to the Regional Partnership’s project list is its “Make It Your Own,” branding initiative to help showcase the things that could make northeast Indiana home for people looking to live and work in the area.

“We need to make sure northeast Indiana has a value proposition for those who live here and those who might live here in the future,” Galbraith said.

After years of tireless working and experimentation, the region is starting to finally see some results. More people are looking to make their home in northeast Indiana, jump-starting the productivity of businesses in need of more manpower and the housing market, which had slowed in years past.

“In the depths of the recession we were losing people,” Galbraith said. “Those numbers have dramatically changed. We’re starting to see an uptick in projects and in terms of secondary indicators such as our housing market has gone wild meaning more people are looking at and buying houses.”

Progress is a bit slower in Whitley County, but is promising, nonetheless, for Myers and other local leaders. The targeted marketing strategies have yielded a handful of new applications, according to Myers, but they are still not quite hitting that annual goal of 727. With the new census data expected out in March, Myers is hopeful that it will bring even more good news.

“Last year, I think we were at a little over 250 new residents, which is still about a third of what we need to hit those numbers but that was an increase of about 200 folks over the previous year,” Myers said. “I’m anxiously awaiting to see if anything we’ve done over the past year has helped on that front so basically anything over 250 is going to be continuing to go in the right direction. We’re breaking the curve in the right direction and hopefully we can accelerate that.”

During this population upswing, a new trend has emerged both on a regional and county level. Galbraith describes this population of people as “boomerangs,” or people who may have grown up in northeast Indiana and then left for a period of time before returning. Myers agreed that he has seen this happen in Whitley County as well.

“I would say that’s where our sweet spot has been over the last couple of years and where we’ll probably grow,” Myers said. “You’ve got kid that go off to college and go to work in Chicago or New York, but then say when they get into early thirties and start to have kids, they realize they can move back home.”

There is one area that has enjoyed its own uptick, but it’s one that can’t be quantified: regional pride.

“To see communities investing in themselves and seeing private investment in small communities makes a huge impact on how people view our communities,” Kate Virag, vice president of marketing and strategic communications at the Regional Partnership, said. “When they see this reinvestment through the Fahl Aquatic Center in Columbia City and trails across the region, it really gives people a sense of pride in the community and makes them want to stay.”

Once local leaders started committing themselves to lifting their whole communities up, it seems like everyone else now wants to have a hand in the lifting.

“I think maybe prior, folks wanted to do something they just didn’t have a good sense of where things were going and what they could do to be a part of it,” Myers said. “I’m seeing a lot more cooperation between community organizations. I think it’s like big super tanker. You try to get it moving in the right direction, and we’re seeing some momentum and a sense of pride.”

The region hasn’t reached the end of the road yet, and it will likely take a few more years before the end is even in sight, but a path of hope leading into the future seems to be all the motivation they need.

“I wish I could tell you this has solved our talent problem, but this has not,” Galbraith said. “We are going to be facing this for a long time as the baby boomer generation retires. One of the things we know is that we’re not making any new 55-year-olds, and so as those guys go out of the workforce, we know for the next 10 or 15 years we’re going to need to add to our population to stay even, much less grow.”

In Whitley County, that gleaming hope has inspired new infrastructure and housing projects to make more homes available to potential newcomers and continued efforts to make Whitley County a recognizable name far and wide.

“We’re fighting for it every day and we’re just trying to hit our numbers and hoping everybody in the surrounding counties is doing the same thing,” Myers said.

Even when the region has achieved its ultimate goal, the Regional Partnership will find a new set of tasks on their hands to make sure that the one million who live here turn into one million who will stay.

“There’s always new challenges as you grow that we need to be reactive or proactive about,” Virag said. “There’s not really a point where you’ve ever really made it.”