Regional chamber provides expert testimony, advocacy
By Gwen Clayton | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly
Bill Konyha can boast a healthy list of accomplishments as he wraps up his first full year as president of the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana, but he still has a vision of more he wants to do.
“Once I arrived, I really had very little time to build a legislative agenda,” he said. “We did a lot of work supporting Greater Fort Wayne Inc., supporting the state chambers and supporting the manufacturer’s association and some issues like that. However, we did begin some discussions and we did provide some testimony.”
Konyha took the helm of the regional chamber in November 2017 after spending 29 months as the director of Indiana’s Office of Community and Rural Affairs. He is also the former CEO of the Economic Development Group of Wabash County, which later merged with the Wabash Chamber of Commerce to become Grow Wabash County.
The regional chamber’s president’s chair was vacant from February to November 2017 while the organization was between leaders. Konyha’s predecessor, Vince Buchanan, left in a hasty departure after he admitted to misappropriating almost $100,000, which he quietly paid back but resigned nonetheless. In the interim, John Sampson, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, supported the operations of the regional chamber until Konyha took the reins.
Konyha is now busy focusing on goals for 2019 and reflecting on 2018.
Some of the testimony the regional chamber provided this year supported the tax increment financing to support the Electric Works project in Fort Wayne. The group also provided testimony supporting regional development tax credits and the right for all 11 northeast Indiana counties to impose a food and beverage tax to support themselves and to contribute a small amount of money to the regional development authority to help them continue the work of the IEDC’s Regional Cities Initiative.
“We began discussions about how communities can support workforce attainable housing particularly in the areas outside of Allen County, although much of Allen County was interested in this as well,” Konyha said. “I believe that those discussions will result in proposed legislation.”
The regional chamber reconstituted its policy committee in 2018, adding more private sector voices and receiving greater participation from its private sector members. The group developed an agenda and is prepared for a year of visits to the statehouse.
“We expect legislation to be introduced to allow cities and towns 25,000 or smaller to seek grants from the state in the amount of up to $500,000 to support the renovation of their downtown commercial districts,” Konyha said. “This would include a dollar-for-dollar match on things like facades, roof repair, windows, doors, sidewalks, signage, landscaping, interior rehabilitation, elimination of asbestos and/or led-based paint.”
The regional chamber’s big issue for 2019, though, is going to be asking for $5 million to fund an environmental impact study on converting U.S. 30 to interstate status from Fort Wayne to Valparaiso.
Because Konyha participated in the Hoosier Heartland Corridor and the conversion of U.S. 31, he understands how long it takes to complete projects like those.
“In that process, it won’t allow them to move forward until they establish an account number,” Konyha said. “They won’t establish an account number until they have funds. We’re trying to get funds in their account so they can start the process moving. We think that’s going to probably be a pretty big deal this year.”
The regional chamber has always supported efforts that benefit early childhood education, including the expansion of pre-kindergarten.
“We do so with the knowledge and understanding that there’s going to be strong demands on the state general fund,” Konyha said. “Their primary concern, I believe, this year is going to be to add funding to the Department of Child Services and to provide expanded funding to increase teacher pay. There’s going to be a lot of groups like us fighting for whatever is left.”
“The most important thing, I think, that we were able to accomplish this year was to really expand our policy committee to get greater impact and greater participation from our private-sector members,” Konyha said. “At the end of the day, it’s important for us to support efforts in greater Fort Wayne. It’s important for us to support efforts of the state chamber or the state manufacturers association and others, but ultimately, we need to be driven by our members and have them develop policy issues that they want us to address.”
The regional chamber also this year added to its list of membership benefits by providing expert testimony on local issues, which it did in Whitley, Allen and other counties to provide support for resolving regulatory issues.
Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch was the keynote speaker May 21 at the regional chamber’s first expanded annual meeting for its members. Chamber leaders reviewed progress made in 2017, amended the organization’s bylaws and conducted board elections, including added one more board member.
On Oct. 23, the regional chamber participated in the World Trade Center Conference at Sweetwater Sound in Fort Wayne. The event, hosted by World Trade Center Indianapolis, took place to discuss trades and tariffs and the international opportunities open to northeast Indiana businesses.
Other participating organizations included Greater Fort Wayne Inc., the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership and the Indiana Small Business Development Center.
For the event, the regional chamber arranged, hosted and provided the emcee for the discussion on U.S. trade policy, which featured congressional representatives Jim Banks, R-3rd, and Jackie Walorski, R-2nd.
A ‘busy year’
“All in all, we had a pretty busy year,” Konyha said. “This year, I expect a lot more activity in the legislature for a number of reasons, not the least of which is this is a budget year. Last year was not. It was an election year. It’s always hard to get them to work in that year.”
The regional chamber will continue to work hard to expand its membership. The organization added eight members in 2018 — one in Allen County and seven outside of Allen County.
“We’re doing that intentionally because we want to build a little more of a regional look to ourselves.”
The regional chamber hopes to build its membership everywhere in the region, especially outside of Allen County.
“One of the things we hear is ‘the regional chamber is really Fort Wayne-centric,’” he said. “Our response is, ‘of course it is. Fort Wayne is the economic driver of the region and look at our membership — our membership comes from Fort Wayne. We’d be happy to have you participate. We’d be happy to have you play a meaningful role. We’d be happy for you to have a seat on the board of directors. But you have to join. You can’t take a leadership position without being a member.’”
Konyha is pleased with the reception the group has received this year.
“I expect that it will be similar in regard to that next year,” he said. “I expect that our membership will continue to grow and that we will add a few members from Allen County and many members outside of Allen County.”
Since 1980, local business leaders have relied on the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana to advocate for their best interests. Originally formed as Fort Wayne Corporate Council, the small group originally met to discuss how to positively contribute to the growth of the community.
In June of 2010, the Corporate Council expanded its role and renamed itself the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana.
Today, its mission is to promote an environment in which individuals, businesses, and communities can thrive in a global economy. Its vision is to move northeast Indiana “confidently toward a limitless future on the strength of 21st century talent, world class infrastructure and a competitive business climate that fosters investment, growth and success,” according to the organization’s website, www.neinadvocates.com.